PG&E says electrical equipment is getting safer

The beleaguered utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. told state regulators on Thursday that the organization’s new leadership is producing significant changes, making Northern California’s power grid safer and less likely to start a fire. of forest.

The company has reformed its culture so that it now quickly escalates issues and comes up with new ideas on how to operate better, officials told a safety hearing. Preventive blackouts – as targeted as possible – have become the norm when fire danger is high, plans to underground 10,000 miles of cables over the next decade are underway, and technology that detects better power line problems, such as sparking, has been widely deployed.

But with the utility’s long track record, which includes sparking some of the largest and deadliest wildfires in the state, the reported improvements have ways to remedy the company’s poor reputation.

“Every day, we remain focused on safety, and it’s at the forefront of everything we do,” said Adam Wright, the company’s executive vice president of operations and chief operating officer.

He later added, “We know we have a lot of work to do.”

Thursday’s hearing was a review of state utility practices, hosted by the California Public Utilities Commission and the new Office of Energy Safety Infrastructure, which oversees utility companies and the state’s power grid. San Diego Gas & Electric also showcased its safety enhancements on Thursday. Other public services were in the spotlight last week.

The investigation follows the escalation of wildfires caused by electrical equipment in recent years. Since 2017, firefighters have blamed PG&E equipment for starting more than two dozen large fires, including the 2018 campfire in the Butte County community in Paradise that killed 85 people and set fires more than 18,000 buildings.

The company has since filed for bankruptcy, which it emerged from two years ago with a new reorganization and new management. President and CEO Patti Poppe, who started in January 2021, has made changing the culture and creating a stronger, more resilient power system top priorities.

On Thursday, PG&E officials – Poppe was not present – used their time to focus on the company’s broad governance reforms, not necessarily the individual actions the company is taking. to do before with limited success. Representatives sought to portray an organization that takes its security mission seriously, noting at one point that there are 1,800 15-minute reviews of operations a day.

“The board is constantly asking questions about culture and how leaders are doing,” said Cheryl Campbell, who serves on the board of PG&E Corp.

PG&E officials said that due to a program that automatically cuts power when computers detect equipment problems, the number and size of fires started by utility equipment has dropped significantly – although the program cannot prevent all sparks. Utility officials said they know customers don’t like sudden power loss when the program kicks in and are working to reduce the duration of outages.

The company is also on track to put at least 175 miles of power lines underground, more than double last year’s total.

Despite the changes, the company continues to struggle with an old and fragile infrastructure.

PG&E was blamed for the massive Dixie Fire last year, which scorched nearly a million acres in Northern California. This year, its transmission poles have been roped off in the investigation of the Mosquito Fire, the biggest fire so far this season. Firefighters have not yet determined the cause of the fire.

“Obviously, you’ve done an enormous amount of work over the past four years,” said Caroline Thomas Jacobs, the first director of the state’s Office of Energy Safety Infrastructure. “Having said that, at the end of the day, what matters is: is PG&E not causing more catastrophic fires?”

Kurtis Alexander is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @kurtisalexander

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