PG&E had been urged by an outside consultant eight years before the disastrous Camp fire to perform the kind of routine climbing inspections on its aging transmission towers that some experts say could have averted the disaster. But apparently, the utility failed to heed the advice.
Back in 2010, Quanta Technologies did an assessment of PG&E’s transmission towers and found a growing risk of failure. The report, disclosed to state regulators who tried to convince federal regulators PG&E was overcharging customers, focused on thousands of steel transmission towers that were already 80 years old, or even older.
Quanta advised PG&E to comprehensively inspect some of them for “structure and foundation integrity” as “an appropriate beginning.’’
Towers like the one where a worn hook failed before the Camp fire last year, should have been climbed and inspected every three to five years, the consultants said. Instead, an accounting by PG&E shows the company relied on helicopter patrols and ground-based inspections, which are less expensive.
Mark Toney, head of the utility watchdog group TURN, says he doesn’t understand why the company did not heed Quanta’s advice.
“PG&E should have done that, and it’s really remarkable that even after, they failed to properly inspect and maintain their equipment,” he said. “The only way we’re going to reduce wildfires is for PG&E to do the job we pay them to do.”
In 2017, the utility missed another chance to avert disaster. In an assessment of its transmission towers, the company set out a strategy aimed at preventing tower “structure failure … causing fire.”
But the effort was centered on shoring up towers in coastal areas, prone to marine corrosion. The document indicates PG&E assumed that inland, and valley-based towers -- like the Caribou-Palermo line – would safely endure 100 years or more of service.
Yet the analysis failed to account for the mass failure of five towers on the Caribou-Palermo line in the winter of 2012. PG&E’s records show the company did not climb the line after that, even though its own rules call for climbing inspections after storm failures.
It was only during inspections done after the Camp fire that PG&E crews finally climbed Caribou-Palermo towers and found 18 potentially deadly problems, like the one tied to the fire. The line has since been permanently decommissioned.
The post-fire inspections uncovered a total of nearly 100 critical dangers on its transmission system among 250,000 problems that the utilty says it will have to address in high fire risk areas– at a cost of $2.5 billion.
Toney is staggered by the sheer volume of troubles.
“A quarter million problems that need to be fixed is an enormous number,” he says. “On one hand I’m glad that PG&E has found them and fixed them. On the other hand, I’m sitting here wondering like everybody else: What has PG&E been doing with ratepayer money they have received year after year to maintain their equipment? Where has it been going?”
PG&E declined to do an interview, instead sending a statement that reads:
“We have acknowledged that the devastation of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires made clear that we must do more to combat the threat of wildfires and extreme weather while hardening our systems. As we have disclosed publicly, we are taking significant actions to inspect, identify, and fix these issues with our electric system as part of our expanded Community Wildfire Safety Program. While the number of safety issues we have identified on our electric system is small by percentage, it’s unacceptable.
"We are taking action to meet the challenge. PG&E is completing advanced inspections of our electric infrastructure in the high fire-threat areas, which includes visual and aerial inspections of approximately 50,000 electric transmission structures, 700,000 distribution poles and 222 substations, covering more than 5,500 miles of transmission line and 25,200 miles of distribution line. This inspection program of our electric system in the highest fire threat areas has been addressing immediate safety risks as they are identified.
"As part of our commitment to transparency, the results of the enhanced and accelerated inspections have been provided to the CPUC and PG&E will make the status of all of our high-priority repairs publicly available next week.”