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PG&E tells judge it fell short on fire prevention targets last year


Jan. 15, 2020

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. did not meet several commitments in its state-mandated wildfire prevention plan last year, including performance review targets for tree-trimming work and benchmarks for power line inspections, the utility told a federal judge Wednesday.
Only about 60% of PG&E’s expanded efforts to prune or remove trees that could fall on power lines initially passed work quality reviews, attorneys for the company said a filing to U.S. District Judge William Alsup. PG&E had aimed to have 92% of the work meet expectations during the performance reviews.
Attorneys said all of the power line miles that did not initially clear the quality inspections had to be reworked and reviewed again to ensure they achieved PG&E’s standards. In October, the company also analyzed a 9% sampling of the work reviews themselves and found that 98% of them were properly conducted, according to the court filing.
Tree-trimming review was one of the starkest areas where PG&E fell short of the targets spelled out in its fire-prevention plan, which the California Public Utilities Commission signed off on in May . But it wasn’t the only area — the company said it was also unable to fix all the problems it found while inspecting power lines, for example.
The fire-prevention plan has been of great interest to Alsup, the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation arising from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. He made compliance with the document a new condition of probation, and last month he told PG&E to explain whether it was in compliance with the plan and California’s vegetation management rules.
In their response, attorneys said PG&E “recognizes that it has more work to do to continue to improve its vegetation management and other wildfire mitigation programs.”
“At the same time, PG&E has made significant progress in enhancing its readiness and responsiveness to the increased threat of potential wildfires across its service territory,” they said. “The number of utility-caused wildfires in high fire-threat areas of PG&E’s service territory declined materially in 2019 and there was no repeat of the deadly catastrophic wildfires that devastated Northern California in 2017 and 2018.”
PG&E did fulfill its plans to inspect 50,000 of its heavy-duty transmission structures and nearly 700,000 lower-voltage distribution poles — though crews completed the work months behind schedule. Those inspections unearthed thousands of high-priority problems to fix , some of which remained incomplete at the end of the year, according to the company.
In the fire-prevention plan, PG&E said it would finish all top priority repairs May or June. But as of Dec. 31, the company still needed to complete about 4% of the most important distribution line repairs and 7% of the top transmission line repairs.
PG&E said it was held back non distribution repairs by “factors beyond its control” and, for transmission repairs, the timing for when the company was allowed to take lines out of service. A “temporary diversion of resources” to the company’s widespread planned blackouts — an extreme measure to prevent power lines from starting fires — also contributed to the delay, attorneys said in the court filing.
The blackouts themselves did not fulfill PG&E’s original plan, either.
In the version of the plan approved by the utilities commission, PG&E said it would inspect every power line it turned off before restoring electricity. In practice, the company focused its patrols on the lines that actually ran through areas with dangerous weather conditions. PG&E said it used “operational judgment to determine whether to patrol lines that were interrupted only as a secondary effect of the de-energization of other lines.”
PG&E said it spelled out that new strategy in an amended version of its wildfire plan in April. But that document has not yet been approved by the state utilities commission.
J.D. Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jd.morris@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thejdmorris
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