September 23, 2023

State regulators should rigorously scrutinize PG&E’s wildfire-safety technique shift.

The large utility has a protracted and legal historical past of placing income earlier than security. And the state has an equally lengthy, ugly historical past of failing to carry out its oversight function. This time regulators should get it proper.

Lives depend upon it. PG&E is answerable for greater than 100 wildfire deaths up to now six years. Northern Californians are sick and bored with paying among the highest utility charges within the nation for substandard and life-threatening service.

Now, the utility is reducing again on its troubled tree-trimming program and as a substitute growing set up of units that shut down energy instantly when branches strike traces or there may be {an electrical} fault on a line.

PG&E says its preliminary efforts in 2022 to depend on the units resulted in fewer and smaller fires regardless of dry situations. The utility additionally plans to proceed its work to bury energy traces underground and exchange energy poles in high-risk areas.

The strategic shift raises three crucial questions:

• Will the top end result be fewer devastating wildfires?

• Will prospects face an unacceptable variety of shutdowns?

• Is the utility’s new strategy probably the most cost-effective solution to improve security?

Few Californians have heard of the brand new regulatory physique charged with evaluating, approving and imposing PG&E’s plans.

The Workplace of Power Infrastructure Security was created in July 2021 by state lawmakers annoyed with PG&E’s shortcomings and the California Public Utilities Fee’s incapacity to satisfy its oversight function. The brand new workplace is charged with guaranteeing “a sustainable California, with no catastrophic utility-ignited wildfires, that has entry to protected, inexpensive and dependable electrical energy.”

In June, the brand new regulators advised PG&E that its new 2023-25 wildfire mitigation plan was insufficient. PG&E on Monday filed a 127-page response. Power Security is permitting public feedback to be filed till Aug. 22 earlier than releasing a draft choice Sept. 29.

The regulators ought to rigorously think about prices leveled by watchdog The Utility Reform Community (TURN), which contends that PG&E continues to keep away from cheaper, efficient different approaches, together with insulating energy traces in high-risk wildfire areas. TURN government director Mark Toney says undergrounding energy traces is just too costly and takes an inordinately very long time to finish. He maintains that Southern California Edison’s and San Diego Fuel and Electrical’s use of insulated traces is cost-effective and reduces the necessity to shut off energy when tree limbs fall on electrical traces.

PG&E is a convicted felon. Since 2017, the utility has been instantly blamed for a staggering 31 wildfires, burning 23,956 constructions and almost 1.5 million acres — and killing 113 Californians. Any claims or assurances the corporate supplies about its new wildfire-prevention plan needs to be suspect and have to be independently verified.

This yr, Northern Californians have skilled a comparatively gentle wildfire season. It’s unclear if that is because of this winter’s heavy rains, decrease summer season temperatures, PG&E efforts or plain luck. Regardless, the wildfire risk stays. It’s important that the state’s Power Security workplace fulfill its oversight obligations and maintain PG&E answerable for assembly its security obligations.