PG&E Must Explain Why Inspections Missed Tree and Equipment Damage Exposed in Massive Shutoff: Judge

As more PG&E power shutoffs loom, a federal judge has given PG&E until the end of the month to account for the more than 100 problems apparently missed by its inspectors and tree trimming crews before the massive shutdown revealed them earlier this month.

U.S. Judge William Alsup set an Oct. 30 deadline for the company to specify where trees hit its lines or where equipment failed during the shut offs. He also ordered the company to indicate whether the damage could have led to arcing – the lightning-like event that is the typical cause of an electrical fire -- had power not been shut down to the targeted 35 counties starting on Oct. 8.

Alsup’s order calls for the company to “explain how many of those instances occurred on lines not yet cleared for vegetation versus lines that have been cleared.

“Separately, state how many infrastructure failures were found during the inspections after the [shutdowns], how many of those failures would likely have produced arcing, and how many of those failures had been inspected within the last 12 months.”

PG&E has identified more than 100 confirmed incidents of wind damage across the system during the shutdown, but CEO Bill Johnson says he can’t say whether any one event could have sparked a fire.

“It’s hard to prove a negative – we can’t prove our decision avoided fires that otherwise would have occurred,” Johnson told Public Utilities Commission regulators at a meeting on Friday.

Despite the damage, Johnson told the regulators that based on “unprecedented” inspections, the company’s network in high fire threat areas is in “pretty good shape.” It is not clear, however, how many equipment failures occurred during the high winds that prompted the mass shutoff.

As for tree clearance, Johnson acknowledged this week that many of the failures occurred in areas the company had inspected and trimmed trees as part of its designated inspections of wildfire prone areas. Meanwhile, the company’s highly touted intensive tree clearance effort is lagging far behind schedule, with just 1,000 miles being cleared this year out of a goal of 2,400 miles.

In an earlier filing with the judge, the company acknowledged that at least two fires this year came after its inspectors failed to spot the danger posed by trees near power lines.

One involved a dead 60-foot tall grey pine tree – a leading species tied to fires – that fell onto a line on May 29th in Fresno. An inspection carried out the month before didn’t flag the tree, which was 45 feet away and leaning away from the line.

On Sept. 16, a grey fine limb hit a power line and touched off a 13-acre fire in Mariposa county. The tree had been inspected in April and on Sept. 5, but the 65-foot tall tree was not flagged for removal, although it was a potential hazard given its location 50 feet from the line.

“The tree is alive and the limb appeared to be healthy when it contacted the conductor” the company said in its report to Alsup.

In shutoffs on 23rd and 25th of September, the company acknowledged that trees hit its wires in three locations – two in Nevada City and one in Butte County-- and a fourth incident in which trees limbs hit a pole-mounted transformer in Oroville.

But the company hasn’t said what inspections or clearance efforts were done before the September shutoffs.

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