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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.

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.

California legislature considers utility fire liability changes

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The fires ravaging California this morning are a stark reminder that last year’s horrific blazes were no fluke. They are the new normal. Figuring out how to live with this reality is the most pressing task in front of the California legislature when it reconvenes later today.

One of the many issues is who pays?

Under California law, if the cause involves an electric utility’s infrastructure, then it has to pay for the full cost of the damage, whether it was fully, or even truly, at fault. And whether or not it was negligent. By one reckoning, Pacific Gas & Electric’s shareholders face a $12 billion tab from last year’s fires alone. Southern California Edison is in the same boat. It’s natural to want someone else to pay for any kind of damage suffered by the public, but there’s also the question of how to keep electricity flowing in California, at affordable rates and in a sustainable manner. Assessing the liability of electric companies as you would for any other business is one way to balance those interests.

Before they left for their summer vacation, key lawmakers agreed with governor Jerry Brown to fast track a solution. While they were gone, Brown released a draft of his preferred approach. According to the proposed bill’s summary…

In a civil action…against an electrical corporation or a local publicly owned electric utility seeking damages arising from an unintended fire that occurred on or after January 1, 2018, when electrical infrastructure is a substantial cause of the fire, this bill would require the court to balance the public benefit of the electrical infrastructure with the harm caused to private property and determine whether the utility acted reasonably.

Telecoms companies can be hit with the same kind of liability claims, as Cox Communications was for a 2007 fire in San Diego County. And they rely on pole routes that are largely built and maintained by electric companies. The top priority has to be the safety of all Californians, but maintaining affordable access to modern electric and telecoms service is important too.

Utility wildfire liability will be settled behind closed doors in Sacramento

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The California legislature took care of one key item of business before it headed out on its month long summer break on Thursday. The senate and the assembly went through the necessary motions to create a conference committee that will decide how liability for California’s continuing epidemic of wildfires will be assigned. Changes to senate bill 901, carried by senator Bill Dodd (D – Napa), will be negotiated largely out of public view over the next few weeks, and then put to a straight up or down vote – no amendments or meaningful debate allowed under normal circumstances.

Dodd says that the conference committee will hold some open meetings, but that’s legislative theater. The real work will be done in private.

That seems to worry senator Jerry Hill (D – San Mateo), who, like Dodd represents a community that’s suffered from Pacific Gas and Electric’s maintenance practices. In 2010, an exploding gas line killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno. On Thursday, Hill slammed the idea of relieving PG&E of responsibility for fire damage…

After San Diego Gas and Electric was held accountable for the 2007 San Diego wildfires, they didn’t come to the legislature trying to change liability rules. They upgraded their infrastructure, they made safety improvements, to prevent future disasters. SDG&E improved their tree trimming around power lines and de-energised lines…during the very high wind events. PG&E didn’t do these same safety improvements on their system. Recent Cal Fire reports show that they didn’t properly cut back trees near their power lines, likely violating state law in 11 of 16 fire reports released so far. So let’s be careful about the reforms that are being proposed by PG&E.

The legislature is due back in Sacramento on 6 August 2018, and the final version of SB 901 could be released then. We should get a chance to see what it says – there’s supposed to be a 72 hour waiting period between the time it’s posted and a vote is taken.

Quick changes to utility wildfire prevention, liability law expected in Sacramento today

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As huge wildfires burn in California and elsewhere in the West, legislative leaders and governor Jerry Brown put changes to the way utility lines are managed on a fast track at the capitol. A bill to allow for shutting off power when fire danger is high and reworking the way electric utilities are held liable for fires and ratepayers are charged for prevention efforts was sent to a conference committee on Monday.

That’s a legislative maneuver that allows legislative leaders – democrats and republicans alike – to negotiate the details of a bill amongst themselves, and then put it to a straight up or down vote in both houses.

The latest published version of senate bill 901 is largely a statement of intent, listing dozens of goals, including…

  • The Public Utilities Commission should establish fire risk reduction and mitigation standards, including protocols for disabling reclosers and deenergizing lines. All protocols should meet or exceed industry best practices. Disabling reclosers and deenergizing lines can cause impacts to fire and police response, the availability of water, hospitals, schools, evacuation centers, and other critical facilities.
  • Even when utilities operate their systems reasonably and prudently, there is an increasing risk of catastrophic losses given the changing conditions in California.
  • Due to these factors, California’s electric utilities face potentially enormous legal exposure even if the utility is not at fault or if the damages are compounded by extreme weather events or other circumstances.
  • Current legal standards should be refined to prospectively allow the courts to determine the liability of electric utilities when they have acted reasonably in installing, maintaining, and operating their transmission systems.

Investigations into last year’s northern California fire storms put responsibility largely on Pacific Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison will likely be similarly blamed for the catastrophic fires that rampaged through its territory. Both companies potentially face many billions of dollars in liability claims and possible criminal charges, because power lines came into contact with trees during high winds. Electric utilities, publicly and privately owned, are legally responsible for trimming back vegetation and keeping their lines clear and safe.

But high winds and extreme heat seem to be increasingly common – SB 901 attributes the rising danger to climate change – and what’s worked in the past isn’t enough to prevent future fires.

Both houses of the legislature have final floor sessions scheduled for today, ahead of their month-long summer break. They’ll have to move fast today.