Why PG&E’s Customers Could See Even More Blackouts This Year

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric may need to rely even more heavily on forced blackouts this year, to prevent its grid from starting more deadly wildfires like the ones that drove it into bankruptcy. 

PG&E’s wildfire mitigation work appears behind schedule, according to data released last week as part of its  first-quarter earnings  report. That work includes grid hardening, vegetation clearing, physical inspections, and installation specialized gear on its distribution and transmission system.

Meanwhile, the inspections that PG&E has done in the past year have come under fire from U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who  last week ordered  the utility to adhere to much more stringent processes for inspecting its power lines. Alsup’s order described PG&E’s reports on its work to date as a “mere courtroom prop,” concealing failures to trim trees clearly in danger of striking distribution lines, or to replace worn equipment on high-voltage transmission towers.

But the judge's orders to expand PG&E’s inspection workforce come at an extraordinary time. The coronavirus pandemic  is  causing problems  for fire-prevention and utility work statewide.

For PG&E, COVID-19 restrictions and economic disruptions “will continue to result in workforce disruptions, both in personnel availability (including a reduction in contract labor resources) and deployment,” the utility wrote in a filing. 

Making matters worse, northern California’s meager rain and snowfall this winter and spring could lead to  a fire season  that’s more dangerous and begins earlier than last year. That leaves PG&E little time to catch up on its work. 

It also increases the possibility that many of its customers will still be confined to their homes under coronavirus restrictions, depending on the state’s reopening plans and the course of the pandemic over the coming months, said Michael Wara, the head of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program and a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Wildfires Blue Ribbon Commission.

That could complicate plans to help elderly or medically vulnerable people who face hardship or even death without power by bringing them to generator-powered community shelter sites, or to quickly deploy the field crews needed to meet  California regulators’ demands  for this year’s power shutoffs to last no more than 24 hours, Wara said in an interview this week. 

“My question, looking at this data, is whether PG&E is clearly communicating with the state, with local governments, with the [state] Office of Emergency Services, and with CALFIRE,” the state firefighting agency, “in terms of how the pandemic is going to affect operations,” Wara said. “I’m hopeful, but I’m concerned.”  

PG&E did not provide an immediate response to a request for comment this week.

Much wildfire mitigation work yet to be done...