PG&E has agreed to pay a $40 million fine and another $85 million to properly decommission a total of 70 unused transmission lines like the one that sparked the Kincade fire two years ago, according to a deal announced by state regulators.
NBC Bay Area was first to report that Cal Fire determined the 2019 Kincade fire – the largest in Sonoma County history -- started on an unused branch of a PG&E high voltage line that had once powered a shuttered geothermal plant near Geyserville.
When the plant was shut down, Cal Fire concluded, crews disconnected clamps that held a jumper cable taut to the tower, while leaving the wire energized.
Cal Fire determined that the live line remained twisting and swaying until it finally snapped in high winds on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, sparking the fire.
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“PG&E left abandoned equipment energized for 13 years even though that equipment provided no benefit or convenience to the public,” the CPUC’s regulatory report on the fire concluded.
“It is reasonable to conclude that PG&E was not only aware of the high wind conditions that are present in the Geysers plant region, but also that PG&E’s equipment in the area was susceptible to fatigue failure induced by high wind events,” the report said.
“The configuration that PG&E used at the Incident Tower after 2006 is not permitted by PG&E’s own manuals and procedures,” the report found. “Therefore, PG&E did not configure the lines in accordance with its own procedures and consequently did not configure the equipment on the Incident Tower in a manner that enabled the furnishing of safe and adequate service.”
The Commission later identified a total of 70 other unused lines that had been left energized despite being no longer needed.
Under the agreement, which is still subject to review by the Public Utilities Commission, the company will spend an estimated $85 million to remove those 70 “permanently abandoned transmission lines” by the end of 2024.
In exchange, regulators agree that they will not go after the utility for failing to properly decommission the lines in the first place.
“That’s really frightening – where are these lines?” asked former CPUC commissioner Catherine Sandoval, who expressed concern as to why it would take so long to get the unused lines taken down.
“Any one transmission line that is not properly decommissioned is a hazard, so why is any one of these improperly decommissioned lines allowed to stand, let alone 70?”
Meanwhile, PG&E stresses the deal carries no admission of fault.
“The settlement states it does not constitute an admission by the Utility of violations of general orders or statutory requirements,” the utility said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Documents show the utility maintains that although the plant had indeed been “mothballed,” it was deemed to still be in “cold standby,” to be preserved for future use. In fact, the company says, Calpine was still paying a monthly service charge and PG&E was continuing to inspect and maintain the system after it was mothballed and left energized in May 2006.
The company is facing criminal prosecution on charges of recklessly causing a fire and air pollution violations for the fire, which consumed 77,000 acres, left four firefighters injured and leveled more than 300 structures, prompting the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history. PG&E has said it accepted Cal Fire’s conclusions but denies it broke any laws.