On Tuesday, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) held a workshop to discuss PG&E’s proposal to fulfill potential probation conditions related to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion in light of CPUC’s competing directive that utilities use PSPS as a last resort and do so in a more targeted fashion. PG&E was convicted of six felonies in 2016 after the deadly explosion in San Bruno and is currently undergoing a sentence of five years of criminal probation with an appointed independent monitor. Citing deadly utility-caused wildfires and vegetation management failures during this probationary period, the U.S. District Court overseeing PG&E is considering imposing new probation conditions beginning July 1st that would drastically increase the scope and frequency of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) in order to minimize wildfire risk and save lives. For example, PG&E could be required to de-energize based on the number of trees or limbs that could fall on distribution lines—called the tree overstrike exposure—in Tier 2 and Tier 3 High Fire Threat Districts. It’s estimated this could double the frequency of PSPS events, especially in many rural northern counties, as well as significantly increase the overall duration of these outages.
RCRC notes that PG&E failed to disclose the additional proposed impacts that its federal probation terms could have on PSPS in its 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan update. PG&E has identified 5.3 million trees over 25,000 distribution miles that may be affected by the Court’s proposed decision. The inspections needed will be done through PG&E’s Enhanced Vegetation Management program, which has a current pace of 1,800 miles per year for assessment. For areas that have not been assessed through the Enhanced Vegetation Management program, electrical circuits with tree overstrike exposure that have not been inspected will factor into the criteria to de-energize distribution lines, leading to greater customer impacts. Last week, the CPUC triggered enhanced oversight and enforcement of PG&E given their history of severe vegetation management deficiencies. An audit revealed less than 5% of PG&E’s Enhanced Vegetation Management was done on the 20 highest-risk power lines. Not only did PG&E fail to self-report problems, PG&E also changed its approach to its risk ranking on multiple occasions when prompted by the Wildfire Safety Division on the inconsistencies of PG&E’s reported data.
The court is expected to make a determination in the coming weeks.