Stephen Ellison

PG&E's Wildfire Mitigation Plan ‘Not a Blank Check': Judges

Two state regulatory judges ruled Monday that while PG&E’s proposed wildfire mitigation plan meets the provisions of the state mandate, it isn’t a "blank check," and the utility has to do more to make sure all the added inspections, tree trimming and power shutoffs are tailored to best protect areas at highest risk.

The utility’s effort, which includes billions for more inspections, tree trimming and calls for power shutoffs under extreme weather conditions, is required under state law approved amid the recent rash of wildfires fires sparked by power lines hitting trees. The state Public Utilities Commission is expected to vote on whether to adopt it as soon as May 31.

In the plan, PG&E proposes spending upward of $1 billion on intensified and accelerated inspections of 685,000 distribution poles, 50,000 transmission structures, and 200 substations, using the risk of sparking wildfire to prioritize those inspections. Fixing all the high-priority problems, the utility warns, could cost $1.5 billion. So far, NBC Bay Area has reported PG&E has told regulators it has found 59 serious threats and 450 violations. The cost of fixing the problems is not known.

The two administrative law judges, Sarah Thomas and Peter Allen, stressed in their ruling that even though PG&E’s plan meets state requirements, "this finding does not give PG&E a blank check," and the utility must do more than carry out inspections already paid for in rates and required by law.

The plan, the judges say, should first focus on wind-whipped ridges and canyons -- areas already recognized as highest risk of wildfire – to make sure the utility is cutting the most risk as soon as possible.

At the same time, the judges were skeptical of the utility’s claim that it can’t find enough skilled arborists to carry out all the work involved.

"PG&E must work with other stakeholders to help solve the (labor shortage) problem, and not simply avoid conducting mitigation," Thomas and Allen chided the utility.

As for PG&E’s planned reliance on more power shutoffs, the judges said the company should look to ways to isolate the number of homes that must go without power and still preserve fire safety.

The company needs to work with local communities that have to endure the inconvenience, providing them with rapid updates about changing wind conditions and specific justification for power shutdowns.

"We cannot emphasize strongly enough: PG&E’s wildfire-related information, data, modeling of data and communications need to be transparent and conveyed effectively and directly in real time to local decision-makers and first responders who can then pass it on to their communities," the judges said in the ruling.

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