Tag Archives: PGE

PG&E reports second “incident” near Camp Fire ignition point, faces CPUC investigation

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At least 71 people are dead, more than a thousand are missing, and the fight to contain the Camp Fire in Butte County continues. As dense smoke settled over its San Francisco headquarters, the California Public Utilities Commission said it will take a hard look at Pacific Gas and Electric, which might have been responsible for starting it.

In yet another bizarre twist to the story, PG&E filed a second incident report with the CPUC late yesterday afternoon, revealing that it “experienced an outage on the Big Bend 1101 12kV circuit in Butte County”, in the community of Concow, at 6:45 a.m. on 8 November 2018, the morning it all began. Previously, PG&E disclosed that it had an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line, a mile northeast of the town of Pulga, 30 minutes before that at 6:15 a.m.

The first report correlated to eyewitness reports of a fire underneath a PG&E high voltage line that began coming in at 6:33 a.m., which was before this second outage happened.

PG&E isn’t offering any details – or speculation – about what this second report might mean. It’s only saying “Cal Fire has collected PG&E equipment on that circuit” and “secured a location” nearby. All Cal Fire has said about the cause of the Camp Fire is that it’s “under investigation”.

Concow is between Pulga and Paradise. Until now, the publicly available information indicated that the fire started east of Pulga, where it was first reported, then moved west into Pulga, through Concow and then into Paradise. A story in the Chico Enterprise Record earlier this week told of how a zone by zone evacuation plan – previously rehearsed by Paradise officials – was pushed beyond the breaking point by the speed of the blaze. This latest report from PG&E raises the possibility that a second ignition point flared up closer to Paradise, taking everyone by surprise.

At this point it’s just my own speculation. But if something like that happened – two fires beginning so close together, from similar causes – it raises even more questions about how this kind of disaster can be prevented in the future.

CPUC president Michael Picker said in a press release “in the existing PG&E safety culture investigation proceeding, I will open a new phase examining the corporate governance, structure, and operation of PG&E, including in light of the recent wildfires”. He also said that the commission will begin implementing senate bill 901, which was passed by the California legislature earlier this year and allows electric utilities to pass some of the costs associated with wildfire liability on to customers.

The physical damage toll will be in the billions of dollars, beyond the limit of PG&E’s insurance coverage and, maybe, beyond its ability to pay under normal circumstances. Bankruptcy is a possibility, if PG&E is even partly to blame and the CPUC doesn’t offer a sufficient bail out.

Southern California Edison also faces the possibility of a multi-billion dollar damage bill from the Woolsey and Hill fires, which ripped through parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. One of its high voltage lines was near the Woolsey Fire’s point of origin, although the cause is yet to be determined as well.

Long term, there are many ideas floating around for reducing the risk of wildfires in California. But for now – for today – the only thing electric utilities can do is turn off power to high risk lines ahead of high wind forecasts.

So far, there have been no major wildfires in San Diego Gas and Electric’s territory. The winds came a little later there, and SDG&E aggressively and proactively de-energised lines before the worst hit. Power was deliberately cut to more than 24,000 customers, with all service restored by yesterday.

SCE didn’t proactively shut down any lines before the fires began, but did shut off a total of 85 customers in scattered locations as high winds continued. All were back on line by Wednesday. PG&E warned it might cut off power in Butte and either other northern California counties ahead of the Camp Fire, but did not do so and stopped issuing alerts more than a week ago.

SDG&E shuts off electricity in fire danger areas, possible SCE link to Woolsey blaze ignition

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Update, 13:48, 12 November 2018: SCE has begun proactive shutoffs, according to its website “due to dangerous high winds in Red Flag fire areas, SCE shut off power to roughly 50 customers in the Moorpark area at about 10:50 a.m. this morning”.

Much of California is under a red flag warning this morning. High winds and dangerously dry conditions could mean yet more wildfires, and more trouble for the three major fires already burning. The death toll from the Camp Fire in Butte County rose to 29 overnight, with hundreds of people still missing. At least two people died in the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles County. Both of those fires are largely uncontained, with high winds expected today and tomorrow.

So far, San Diego Gas and Electric is the only major Californian electric utility to begin large scale, proactive power cuts. It turned off electricity in and around eight communities in San Diego County last night and this morning, affecting ten thousand customers. Southern California Edison put dozens of communities on alert yesterday, but so far hasn’t reported turning off power proactively. PG&E hasn’t updated its proactive electric shut off notices since Friday.

A possible link between SCE and the start of the Woolsey fire surfaced yesterday. SCE filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday night, stating that there was an interruption to a high voltage line near the start of the blaze, two minutes before the first report of a fire came in…

Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m. Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m. Our personnel have not accessed the area to assess our facilities in the vicinity of where the fire reportedly began. At this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that SCE’s incident caused the fire – it might have been the other way around – but it raises the possibility. Cal Fire lists the causes of the Camp, Woolsey and the (smaller and largely contained) Hill fires as “under investigation”.

Beyond the human tragedy, there’s no reliable damage estimate yet. All that’s certain is that it’ll be in the billions of dollars, if not tens or hundreds of billions, range. Under California law, utilities are on the hook for the full cost of the damage, even if the blame is shared with others. A bill passed in the final days of the California legislature’s session in August – senate bill 901 – allowed some of that cost to be passed on to electric customers, but that’s only a partial solution.

The cost of maintaining utility pole routes will climb, which will drive up costs for the telecommunications companies that share those routes. And if telecoms lines are involved in the start of a fire – a loose cable wrapping around electric lines was blamed in a 2007 San Diego County fire – then telephone, cable and other broadband companies would be similarly liable for the damage done.

Governor Jerry Brown said “this is the new abnormal” in a press conference yesterday. That applies as much to California’s telecoms future as it does to everything else connected to these fires.

Californians must choose between tragedy and inconvenience. It’s not hard

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Three massive wildfires continue to burn this morning in California; one in Butte County, two in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The cost in human life is immeasurable, with nine people confirmed dead in northern California and many more missing. There’s no way to gauge the damage to property and the disruption to lives: what is the price of a town burned to the ground?

The town is, or was, Paradise, a community of 26,000 people in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills. The Camp Fire disaster is a horrible shock, but it was no surprise. The fire danger was high in California, and local officials and utilities posted warnings.

Last Tuesday, two days before the Camp Fire began, Pacific Gas and Electric issued an alert in nine counties, including Butte, warning that it “may proactively turn off power for safety starting on Thursday, November 8”. By Wednesday night, eight counties remained on the list, with specific communities, including Paradise, called out.

No power was intentionally shut off that night.

Thursday morning at 6:15 a.m., PG&E “experienced an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line in Butte County”, according to an incident report it filed with the California Public Utilities Commission. Eighteen minutes later, more than a dozen fire units were dispatched to the Poe Dam on the Feather River, where, according to radio transmissions reported by the Mercury News, a fire was quickly spreading…

“We’ve got eyes on the vegetation fire. It’s going to be very difficult to access, Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible,” one firefighter told dispatch. “It is on the west side of the river underneath the transmission lines.”

As firefighters rushed to Poe Dam early Thursday morning, each truck acknowledged over the radio, “Copy, power lines down,” as part of safety protocol for firefighters…

The first firefighter to reach the Poe Dam area Thursday morning quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation and called for an additional 15 engines, four bulldozers, two water tenders, four strike teams and hand crews.

“This has got the potential for a major incident,” he told dispatch, alerting them to evacuate Pulga, the town immediately southwest, and to find air support.

About six minutes later, another firefighter estimated the fire at about 10 acres with a “really good wind on it,” warning that once it left the “maintained vegetation under the power lines” the fire would reach a critical rate of spread when it hit the brush and timber.

On Thursday afternoon, PG&E cancelled its alert and said it didn’t cut power anywhere because “weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure”.

Southern California Edison likewise issued warnings on Tuesday and Wednesday, alerting customers to the possibility of proactive electricity shut offs. None were carried out before the two southern California fires began burning on Thursday.

There’s no indication yet of how the Woolsey and Hill fires started. And there’s no official statements at all regarding the cause of any of the blazes – it will be months before investigations are complete.

Beyond fighting the fires and caring for evacuees, the problem now is how to prevent, or at least reduce the possibility of, more wildfires. Weather conditions are in flux this weekend and the chance of severe winds, high temperatures and low humidity persists.

I’m not going to try to second guess PG&E’s and SCE’s decisions not to cut off power this week. This is new territory for everyone. I can only hope that however the decisions are made, the people making them ignore the self-centered objections and ignorant complaints that erupted from residents and businesses in high risk areas when PG&E proactively shut down power lines for the first time last month.

Yes, it’s inconvenient. Tell that to the survivors of Paradise.

PG&E didn’t start any fires this week and Californians complain

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Pacific Gas and Electric began shutting down electric lines in high risk fire zones on Sunday night, as winds topping 50 miles per hour ripped through northern California. At last report, PG&E had cut power in seven counties – Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Napa, Placer and Sonoma. Crews inspected lines for damage yesterday, as PG&E gradually restored power to the majority of blacked out customers. The job is expected to be finished today.

On Sunday, alerts were broadcast widely. Residents in several other counties were also warned that the cuts might come, and that they should prepare. PG&E has an an opt-in alert system for customers, and county emergency services offices also got the word out.

The goal was to prevent disasters like the massive fire storms that killed dozens of people and burned hundreds of thousands of acres this year and last, including in densely populated residential areas. It’s impossible to know whether a disaster was prevented this time. All that can be said is that Cal Fire had three blazes on its hands yesterday – all were small and largely contained. There’s been no indication that electric lines had anything to do with them.

Naturally, this being California, people are upset about it. Many who have chosen to live and work in high fire risk areas whined about losing power. According to a story in the Weekly Calistogan by Cynthia Sweeney, one local businessman griped about his disappointment with PG&E. “Couldn’t they have given us a reprieve?” he said. “It’s sending a message that October is a scary time to come here”.

Duh.

Southern California Edison sent out similar warnings on Sunday and Monday, as Santa Ana winds hit. As of the company’s last update, no deliberate power cuts have been made.

San Diego Gas and Electric has proactively cut power due to fire danger in the past. It’s been tagged with billions of dollars in fire damage costs, including for one fire in which it shared responsibility for starting it with Cox Communications.

Former chief judge sues CPUC, claims firing due to PG&E investigation retaliation, racial bias

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The California Public Utilities Commission is being sued by its former chief administrative law judge, Karen Clopton. She was fired from her job in 2017.

One of the few things the two sides agree on is that “the CPUC terminated [Clopton’s] employment” and that it was an “adverse action”, as one of the commission’s filings put it. The formal reason for the dismissal isn’t stated in court documents, by either side.

Clopton charges that the real reason she was fired was racial discrimination – she’s African American – and as retaliation for her cooperation “with state and federal investigations into the misconduct of CPUC commissioners and staff”, including allegations of “judge shopping”, during the CPUC’s own investigation of the fatal PG&E gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

The complaint Clopton filed with the San Francisco superior court says “beginning in June 2016, the commission began an investigation and hired an outside investigator to look into Ms. Clopton’s ‘management style,’ including allegations that she engaged in ‘bullying, intimidating, and retaliatory’ behavior towards staff”, which, it says, “were without any factual basis and represent merely the efforts of a few disgruntled employees whose performance Ms. Clopton was required to criticise and correct”. The complaint goes on to say that later, in 2017, commissioners “gave Ms. Clopton a poor evaluation, rating her as ‘improvement needed’ in subjective areas of her performance, including ‘communications skills’ and ‘relations with others’”.

Clopton’s complaint charges that her poor review reflected “resentment” at her “efforts to encourage the commission and staff to maintain high ethical standards” during the criminal investigation into the PG&E/San Bruno “judge shopping” case, and at her “persistent efforts to identify and critique actions and statements reflecting racial bias by commission members and their staff”.

The reply from the commission was to simply “deny the allegations”, which is a proper legal response at this stage of a lawsuit. Detailed arguments and hard evidence come later.

Clopton would have been involved in assigning judges to cases, including the commission’s initial inquiry into the San Bruno explosion. There’s little doubt her cooperation would have been useful during the criminal investigation into how the CPUC handled it. Most of the facts surrounding the San Bruno case and the subsequent investigation have not been publicly disclosed, including Clopton’s role. If her lawsuit goes to trial, we might learn more about the whole story.

Court documents
Order, regarding CPUC objections to amended complaint, 29 May 2018
Order, regarding case management conference, 5 September 2018
Order to show cause, regarding response to 29 May order, 10 October 2018

Documents filed by Clopton
Original complaint, 13 December 2017
Amended complaint, 8 March 2018
Response to CPUC objection to amended complaint, 15 May 2018
Case management statement, 28 June 2018
Case management statement, 4 September 2018

Documents filed by CPUC
CPUC objection (aka demurrer) to original complaint, 13 February 2018
CPUC objection to amended complaint, 13 April 2018
CPUC reply to Clopton response, 21 May 2018
CPUC answer to amended complaint, 28 June 2018
CPUC case management statement, 7 July 2018
CPUC case management statement, 4 September 2018
CPUC case management statement, 9 October 2018

PG&E responsible for Yuba County fire, AT&T is in the clear Cal Fire report says

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Pacific Gas and Electric power lines were the cause of the Cascade fire in Yuba County last year, one of many fires that came to be known collectively as the “October 2018 Fire Siege”. That’s according to an investigation report released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire protection. However, unlike some of the other fires where PG&E was implicated, the cause was not the result of a failure to follow laws regarding utility line maintenance and operations.

According to a Cal Fire press release, the problem was unusually high winds hitting what appeared to be properly built and maintained electric lines…

A high wind event in conjunction with the power line sag on two conductors caused the lines to come into contact, which created an electrical arc. The electrical arc deposited hot burning or molten material onto the ground in a receptive fuel bed causing the fire. The common term for this situation is called “line slap” and the power line in question was owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

As a matter of routine practice, Cal Fire forwarded the report to the Yuba County district attorney, but according to the Los Angeles Times, “Yuba County prosecutors said Tuesday they would not press charges against the company”. That’s in contrast to three fires in Butte and Nevada counties around the same time, where Cal Fire said that PG&E violated the law and the district attorneys are figuring out next steps.

AT&T telephone lines were also on the same poles, but were not implicated as a cause of the fire, according to the report.

Although PG&E and AT&T apparently did not break any laws, that’s not the same thing as saying they are off the hook for civil liabilities. There’s nothing to indicate that AT&T will be caught up in any of that, but PG&E likely will be. Even if PG&E followed the rules and was only partly to blame, the law governing utility poles and lines says that if a utility is involved in causing the fire, it has to pay for all damage. Even if others share the blame. A new law passed at the end of the legislative session in August allows electric companies to share the cost – which in PG&E’s case will run well into the billions of dollars – between its shareholders and customers, subject to the approval of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Wildfire liability changes head into California law and onto your electric bill

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It’s up to the California Public Utilities Commission now to decide whether your electric bill will include billions of dollars worth of damage done by wildfires. Governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 901 on Friday. Among other things, SB 901 allows privately owned electric utilities to raise prices to offset damage payouts due to fires that were, to one degree or another, their fault.

Utilities – electric and telecoms – have the right to plant and use poles along roads and waterways in California, with very few restrictions and no rental fees at all. The downside is that Californian law says that, in exchange, they face strict liability for any damage caused. Even if they’re only partly to blame, they pay the full tab.

With damage estimates from the past two years of monster wildfires climbing into the tens of billions of dollars range, and a growing pile of evidence linking electric lines to the blazes, fears of bankruptcy grew. One solution considered during legislative negotiations over the summer was to soften the strict liability doctrine and allow damages to be spread over any and all who might bear some of the blame for wildland disasters.

Those talks didn’t produce a result, so lawmakers went for Plan B: loosen regulations that restrict how electric utility damage payments are split between shareholders and customers, and let the CPUC decide who pays what. SB 901 was passed in the final hours of the legislative session, and now governor Brown has blessed it.

The deal doesn’t do much for telecoms companies. They set their own rates, without oversight by the CPUC. Telephone companies, particularly AT&T and Frontier Communications, will decide for themselves how to manage wildfire risks, to both their service lines and their bottom line. One solution, which doesn’t bode well for rural Californians, is to rip out copper infrastructure and replace it with low capacity wireless facilities. California lawmakers rejected an effort to streamline that process in 2016. It’s a reasonable bet to think it’ll be back on the table next year.

As California burns, governor decides whether legislature’s utility liability solution is good enough

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A plan to reduce both the risk of catastrophic wildfires happening and the risk that such fires will bankrupt privately owned electric utilities is on California governor Jerry Brown’s desk. He has to decide if the deal reached by legislative leaders as the clock ran out on this year’s session is good enough.

Senate bill 901 would, among other things, allows the California Public Utilities Commission more flexibility in deciding whether liability costs can be passed on to electric customers. Under a principle in California law known as strict liability, if a utility is partially – even slightly – at fault, then it’s responsible for paying for the full cost of wildfire damage. The bill also includes measures to reduce woodland fuel loads and increase fire prevention efforts.

The original idea was to change the strict liability doctrine and figure out some way of spreading liability for wildfire damages amongst all those responsible. Despite nearly two months of negotiations the various sides – electric companies liked the idea, insurers didn’t, for example – couldn’t come to an agreement. So the legislative sausage machine ground out the current compromise that leaves it up to the CPUC to decide how the tab will be split between an electric company’s shareholders and ratepayers.

It’s also an issue for telecoms companies, particularly the incumbent telephone companies – large and small – that serve rural California. They also benefit from access to utility pole routes and bear the same kind of responsibility that goes along with it. The big difference is that the major incumbents – particularly AT&T and Frontier – are unregulated. It’s up to them to decide for themselves whether to cut dividends, raise rates or, in some circumstances, replace wireline infrastructure with wireless facilities, or walk away completely.

In this case, Brown has three viable options. He can accept the compromise and allow the bill to become law, or he can veto it and leave it to the next governor and legislature to solve, or he can veto it and call the legislature back into a special session, until they come up a solution that suits him. He has until the end of September to decide.

No deal on California wildfire liability

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Utility companies will still have to pay the full cost of wildfire damage in California, even if their infrastructure isn’t fully responsible for starting it. A July agreement to revise California’s utility liability law turned into a August stalemate, and the end of the legislative session is coming fast in Sacramento.

According to a story by CapRadio reporter Ben Adler (h/t to Scott Lay at Around the Capitol for the pointer), legislative leaders haven’t come to an agreement on how to change the state’s strict utility liability law, known as inverse condemnation…

“I think it’s safe to say that ‘inverse condemnation’ is off the table,” Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) told CapRadio Friday evening, referring to the state’s current liability law that the utilities have been fighting so hard to change. Dodd co-chairs the joint Senate-Assembly conference committee tasked with crafting wildfire preparedness and liability legislation.

Dodd’s declaration comes days after word began circling around the Capitol that lobbyists for the utilities had begun informing legislative staff and opposing lobbyists of the same thing.

Instead, Dodd says, there are “a number of other components” that lawmakers, the governor’s office, utilities and opponents of changing California’s wildfire liability law are “actively discussing.”

Pacific Gas and Electric, alone, faces a possible $12 billion tab for last year’s firestorms, and Southern California Edison is in a similar predicament. This year’s bill hasn’t even begun to be reckoned.

It’s a tough issue. Utility companies should be held accountable for their negligence and the damage that results. But under current California law, they also have to pay for everyone else’s mistakes and bad behavior. In this new era of megafires, the result might well be bankruptcy, and the disruption to utility infrastructure – electric and telecoms – that entails.

Governor Jerry Brown could call the legislature back in a special session in September. Wildfires, active and otherwise, have been a top priority for him, and for thousands of firefighters and emergency workers all summer. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for lawmakers to put in some overtime too.

PG&E cancels competitive dark fiber business plan

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That didn’t take long.

Four days after informing the California Public Utilities Commission that it couldn’t reach agreement with a grab bag of protesting organisations, Pacific Gas and Electric threw in the towel. It’s ending its plan to become a competitive telecommunications company. It won’t put its extensive inventory of surplus dark fiber, and potentially other services, on the open market.

In its request to withdraw its application for certification as a competitive telecoms company, PG&E said the world has changed since it began the process more than a year ago…

Given PG&E’s present circumstances, it is in the public interest that PG&E make current informed decisions in light of the new environment before investing significant resources in launching the new [competitive telecoms] business. PG&E and parties have diligently engaged in settlement negotiations to expeditiously make progress towards full resolution of the issues in this proceeding. However, as more time passes, the uncertainties of PG&E’s current circumstances outweigh the potential economic and busines benefit of the proposed [competitive telecoms] business. Therefore, the public interest is protected by allowing PG&E to exercise its prudent business decision-making to not continue to pursue the [competitive telecoms] business, at this time, given the significant change in circumstances since the filing of the…Application in April of 2017.

PG&E didn’t say exactly which circumstances had changed, but top of the list has to be the estimated $12 billion in damages it might have to pay out as a result of last year’s wildfires. When a company faces an existential financial threat, it’s time to scrap diversification plans and focus on the core business.

But that’s not the only circumstance that’s changed. The CPUC seems to be intent on killing the competitive dark fiber business in California. Last year’s decision to wave through CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3 Communications took the last major source of independent dark fiber in California off the market, and its savaging of Southern California Edison’s plan to do a bulk dark fiber deal with Verizon sent a clear message that electric companies that want to compete in the telecoms space need not apply.

When California’s utility regulator lines up – wittingly or not – on the same side as big, monopoly model telecoms companies like AT&T, Comcast and Charter Communications, it’s game over. Retreat was PG&E’s only option.