For more than 10 years I have wanted to focus on the positive steps that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is taking to promote and facilitate renewable energy in California. I had a very good experience working with them to install a megawatt solar system for Gap Inc., which was only possible through the support and rebate program that PG&E offered. I also appreciated their leadership in promoting climate change policy and reporting greenhouse gas emissions through The Climate Registry. These are just two of the efforts that have gained PG&E recognition by reputable organizations such as Ceres, Carbon Disclosure Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council. You can read more via PG&E’s website.
But all of this good will is now void in my opinion. Earlier this month California was overcome by several fires on a windy, warm, and dry October night. A series of fast-moving and devastating fires whipped through the state, with the Sonoma, Napa, and surrounding counties in Northern California taking the biggest hit in the form of the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires. In the aftermath of what I’ll call the North Bay Fires, I am angry. Recognizing that we do not yet know all of the facts, I am angry that evidence is pointing to the fact that PG&E has failed repeatedly to uphold their most basic responsibilities—to operate safely and in accordance with the law. This failure puts all of the communities in which they operate at risk. I am also frustrated with the regulators for not properly enforcing safety regulations and levying fines to motivate corrective actions.
As the fires are finally being extinguished, more information will surely be coming out about the specifics of the origins of the fires. Keeping this in mind, I have begun to research PG&E’s contribution in the North Bay Fires as well as their track record on matters of safety. I discovered a dismal picture.
Let’s look at Sonoma County. According to a recent article in the Mercury News, “PG&E power lines linked to wine country fires,” Sonoma County fire crews were dispatched on Sunday, October 8 starting at 9:22 pm over a 90-minute period to at least 10 different locations in response to reports of sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system.
PG&E acknowledged their role in these fires:
“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E's service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases. These destructive winds, along with millions of trees weakened by years of drought and recent renewed vegetation growth from winter storms, all contributed to some trees, branches and debris impacting our electric lines across the North Bay. In some cases we have found instances of wires down, broken poles and impacted infrastructure.”
However, their statement seems false. Weather stations in the vicinity of the Tubbs fire recorded peak wind gusts of 30–41 miles per hour during the 90-minute period when fire crews were dispatched to the region. The evidence indicates that PG&E was not in compliance with state law requiring power lines to withstand winds of at least 56 miles per hour.
Even if you want to give PG&E the benefit of the doubt and assume that the conditions created a “perfect storm,” we cannot ignore the facts that PG&E was not in compliance with state law and should have learned from past disasters to do more to prevent such a tragedy. I would like to share specific situations from which PG&E should have learned (and prevented in the first place).
In April of this year, PG&E was fined $8.3 million for failing to maintain a power line that came in contact with a tree to start the 2015 Butte Fire. The Butte Fire was, at the time, the seventh-largest in California’s history. It burned for 22 days and burned more than 70,000 acres, destroyed 900 structures and killed two people..
No one in the Bay Area will forget the 2010 San Bruno natural gas line explosion that killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes and resulted in PG&E receiving a $1.6 billion fine for violating federal pipeline safety regulation. Federal investigators determined that the San Bruno explosion was the result of PG&E’s poor maintenance and recordkeeping.
PG&E’s poor safety record extends well beyond the catastrophes of the Butte Fire and San Bruno pipeline explosion. From 2007 through 2014, PG&E—which accounts for 42 percent of the state’s gas pipeline miles—racked up nearly three-fourths of the gas safety violations levied against California utilities, according to records from the state Public Utilities Commission. The PUC has imposed a total of $90 million in fines on PG&E--since 2011. This amount is 450 times more than the next-worst offender, Southern California Gas, which has been fined a total of $200,000 during the same period.
PG&E became a felon for crimes linked to the San Bruno blast. Some of the “smoking guns” that should have been seen beforehand include:
· A 2008 internal report in which PG&E engineers warned that funding shortages posed the “greatest risk” to the pipeline inspection program;
· Emails from 2008 and 2009, in which PG&E’s risk assessment supervisor agreed to "knock the leak investigations budget" down, and that "safety" as an issue was "up for debate" at a 2008 strategy discussion; and
· A "PG&E Business Priorities 2008–2011" document placed a 10 percent priority on "safety," compared to a 40 percent priority for "earnings from operations," according to the Worker’s Compensation Institute.
It is no surprise that PG&E’s capital spending on their Electric Distribution Transformer Replacement—a program that presumably could have helped prevent the North Bay Fires—was under budget by $33.6 million (52%) in 2014, and $9.1 million (26%) in 2015.
The regulators are also to blame. The PUC failed to fine PG&E once from 2004 to 2009, a period in which PG&E accounted for 60 percent of the state’s gas-safety violations. In addition, the PUC did not leverage a single fine despite thousands of violations that were found during routine audits before—and since—the San Bruno blast.
If all of this is not infuriating enough, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents, executives received exorbitant pay with excessive increases in 2016, the same year that PG&E was fined and criminally prosecuted for their negligence in the San Bruno explosion. You can see this information here.
I know PG&E is allowed a fair trial in court and in the opinion of the public, and until all the evidence is evaluated, we should not put all of the blame for the North Bay Fires on them. With this said, I believe we have sufficient evidence to demand more accountability of corporations, regulators and individuals so that we can make sure that our utilities—and any organization that pose risks to the general public—operate safely.
I wonder how PG&E executives, regulators and those who pose significant risks to our community sleep at night. With deep sadness, I know they slept better than the thousands of people who fled for their lives the night the North Bay Fires—that PG&E could have prevented—swept through neighborhoods and changed their lives forever.
 Source: http://abc7news.com/pg-e-source-believes-downed-power-lines-blown-transformers-started-deadly-north-bay-fires/2521710
 Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/12/california-fires-pge-power-lines-fell-in-winds-that-werent-hurricane-strength/
 Source: http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/fires/article74496267.html