PG&E Makes Apparent Policy Change for Fire Season

A PG&E executive signaled Friday an apparent about-face in the company’s stance on reclosers – automated devices that other utilities have long disabled to limit fire danger but PG&E left on for most lines before last October’s North Bay firestorm.

“We continue to evolve our policies and practices with regard to reclosers,” PG&E’s electrical operations executive Patrick Hogan told a committee of legislators meeting in Santa Rosa Friday to examine what happened in the recent firestorms.

NBC Bay Area first told you about the possible role of those devices in the North Bay firestorm.

They automatically send three jolts of energy after a fault occurs on a line.

If the malfunction is only temporary, as is most common, service is quickly restored without having to send a repair crew.

But if a line is severed in high wind, reclosers send sparks flying from the downed line onto nearby grass and trees. Southern California utilities have long disabled their recloser devices in fire season because of the danger they pose.

Recloser technology has been tied to a major fire in San Diego back in 2007 and a massive wildfire in Australia two years later.

Regulators recently found San Diego Gas and Electric was negligent for leaving reclosers on before the Witch fire in 2007, despite knowing about the inherent danger since 2001.

Before the October wildfire, PG&E opted to shut down just 38 of its reclosers as part of a pilot project limited to the worst wildfire-prone areas, its officials have said. That included just three in the hardest hit fire areas of Napa and Sonoma.

But in December, the utility disabled 4,000 reclosers across its service territory, Hogan said on Friday.

State Sen. Jerry Hill said he was surprised to learn about PG&E’s shift in policy. He said the change suggests the utility mishandled its North Bay response, given that it was well aware of the extreme winds and fire danger days in advance.

“They limited the deactivation of their reclosers to a small number in October,” Hill said in an interview after the hearing, “when they had the capability of doing that to 4,000. Why didn’t do the 4,000 in October, that’s a question we have to ask them.”

Hogan testified the limited pilot project was simply an effort to gauge the impact of recloser shutdown. He repeatedly asserted that not all utility territories are alike, an apparent effort to distinguish PG&E from the two Southern California utilities.

Also at the hearing in Santa Rosa, Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker admitted that the state regulatory agency was “caught flatfooted” by the unprecedented winds in October. Even now, he said, the CPUC remains ill-staffed and ill-equipped to assure safety given what has become a year round fire threat.

“With more and frequent fires, perfect safety is going to be really hard for us to reach,” Picker said. “That’s why I’m personally very fearful.”

At the start of the hearing, Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott set the tone by saying that everyone has to cooperate in the face of the unprecedented fire danger from climate change.

“We have a lot of work to do to reduce this risk.”

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