SAN FRANCISCO – Pacific Gas & Electric’s aging and unmaintained infrastructure is a driving factor in the threat of California wildfires, an independent investigator found.
Utility pole damage, loose wires and impaired ground connections are just some of the problems, says a report released this month by Colorado-based consulting firm Filsinger Energy Partners. The company specializes in finding ways to overhaul how power companies operate.
The California Public Utilities Commission ordered the study in 2020 as part of a deal with PG&E for the investor-owned utility to exit bankruptcy following the deadly Camp Fire and several other earlier fires ignited by the company’s faulty equipment.
“Nobody should be too surprised by the results of this initial investigation. PG&E has ignored for years the wildfire threat its decrepit infrastructure poses to millions of people in California,” said EWG President and Bay Area resident Ken Cook. “Instead, the monopoly utility has successfully pressured regulators to approve rate hike after rate hike to build out even more transmission lines and gas plants.”
Filsinger Energy Partners’ role is an independent safety monitor, or ISM, charged with regularly overseeing embattled PG&E’s pledge to make the improvements needed to limit the risk of massive wildfires caused by its failure to adequately maintain its transmission equipment.
In the first of several planned investigations, the ISM highlights a number factors that have contributed to PG&E’s long history of causing destructive and even deadly blazes across northern and central California. Chief among them are many examples of aging and rickety equipment.
“Across the divisions (e.g., Transmission, Distribution, Gas, etc.), the ISM has observed numerous PG&E asset ages that are significantly older than the related industry average,” the report says.
Staff in several PG&E divisions have pointed to old equipment that needs fixing or replacing, and the funds needed for that work, the ISM says. But for some projects, the resources the company has set aside fall short of what’s needed, the report warns.
Data PG&E provided to the ISM show that power substations had an average age of 60 years, fully 20 years older than the typical electric utility service life.
Other equipment averaged 53 years in age, 18 more than the industry average. The ISM found a “significantly higher investment would be required” to get those assets “reduced to the industry average.”
EWG’s Cook said, “Much of PG&E’s plans for massive transmission investments could be avoided, saving billions for ratepayers by pivoting to distributed energy generation, including community-based and residential solar and storage resources.”
“Adding more transmission lines and gas plants will only increase the risk of future wildfires and the loss of property, livelihoods and lives left in their wake,” Cook added.
PG&E and the other two big investor-owned utilities in California are pushing regulators at the CPUC to quash the state’s residential solar program and the financial incentives homeowners get for installing panels on their rooftops.
The ISM investigation identifies other PG&E challenges and shortcomings that have also contributed to the company’s shoddy wildfire safety record. They include equipment inventory shortages, partly caused by supply chain disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic, training and retaining employee and contract safety inspectors, and problems with natural gas storage inspections and record keeping.
PG&E’s wild history of devastating fires
Below are several of the more devastating fires attributed to PG&E’s bad management, according to the news and opinion website Wildfiretoday.com:
- Dixie Fire, October 2021: 963,309 acres, destroyed 1,329 structures and forced more than 26,000 people to evacuate.
- Zogg Fire, September 2020: 56,338 acres, destroyed 204 structures, and caused the deaths of four people.
- Kincade Fire, October 2019: 77,000 acres, and destroyed 374 structures.
- Camp Fire, November 2018: 154,000 acres, destroyed 18,000 structures, and caused the deaths of 84 people. The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
- Cascade Fire, October 2017: 9,989 acres, destroyed 250 structures, and caused the deaths of five people, including one firefighter.
- Redwood Valley Fire, October 2017: 36,523 acres, destroyed 543 structures, and caused the deaths of 9 people.
- Atlas Fire, October 2017: 51,624 acres, destroyed 783 structures, and caused the deaths of 6 people.
- Butte Fire, September 2015: 70,868 acres, destroyed a total of 921 structures, including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings, and 4 commercial properties, and caused the deaths of two people.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.