By Tim Fitzpatrick
In the wake of the extraordinary, wind-driven wildfires that swept across Northern California in October, there has been a significant amount of speculation about a broad range of issues, including PG&E’s Electric Operations maintenance policies. Given the nature of these events, and their impact on local communities, we think it is critical that everyone has the facts — including a complete picture of the complexity of providing our customers safe, reliable, affordable and clean energy in a region at high risk for wildfires.
As we await official word from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on the actual causes of the wildfires, we expect to see continued speculation and coverage that includes inaccurate information. To that end, we are providing key facts about several recent topics of discussion.
Coverage of CPUC Audits of PG&E Electric Operations Maintenance: Some recent media reports about the CPUC’s audits of our Electric Operations neglected to address the nature and timing of the audits, the substantial efforts PG&E has made to directly address the issues identified by those audits, and PG&E’s commitment to holding ourselves to heightened standards, that often go far beyond regulatory requirements.
Here are the facts:
- PG&E works every day to ensure that safe and reliable energy service is delivered to our customers in compliance with all regulations.
- By the time the Sonoma 2015 audit at the heart of these misleading articles was issued to the public, PG&E had developed a plan to address the issues in the audit, and had completed nearly all the work identified by the audit at the time of its issuance.
- Beginning in the 2008-2009 timeframe, PG&E began reevaluating its overhead compliance program. By 2010, PG&E had further enhanced and refined its compliance program associated with routine maintenance work of our overhead lines, including new training, processes related to risk-based target dates for this work, and metrics to help further mitigate risk on our system.
- But when it comes to safety our work is never done. PG&E will continue to find and fix any issues on our system to ensure we are living up to the high standards we set for ourselves when it comes to safety.
CPUC Fire Threat Map Stories: Recent coverage has suggested that PG&E was responsible for delaying the implementation of a new California state wildfire risk map. This is simply not true. As CPUC President Michael Picker noted at a recent Commission Meeting on Oct. 26 in Sacramento, the recent time extension was in fact requested by Cal Fire.
Here are the facts:
- The safety of our customers, general public and our employees and contractors is always our top priority, which is why we’ve been actively engaged with CAL FIRE, the CPUC, other energy companies, municipalities and community groups to develop new utility fire threat maps and new fire safety regulations that protect our communities and our customers throughout the Commission’s fire safety proceeding.
- We absolutely agree with and support the goal of this proceeding to further reduce the threat of wildfires while addressing the potential impact of the proposed regulations on our customers.
- It’s important to note that Cal Fire requested the recent time extension. PG&E and SDG&E submitted Cal Fire’s extension request as a courtesy because CAL FIRE was not an official party to the proceeding and could not file the motion under the rules of the proceeding.
- PG&E introduced a proposal for fire threat maps targeted to the highest fire danger areas in the state, and extending the current fire season-only regulation to be year round. We believe our proposal will enhance safety and avoid confusion related to changing seasonal regulations, while limiting impacts on urban areas to focus on the highest fire threat regions.
- Others have proposed changes calling on extending high-risk vegetation clearance practices to be applied to the entire state. This proposal would require energy companies and others with overhead lines to clear a large numbers of trees in lower risk, urban areas — at a significant cost and environmental impact to customers — with limited evidence of a reduction of wildfire risk. We disagree with this approach and we have said so in our comments about this proceeding. The media is using these comments to suggest we are stalling, and that is untrue.
- Our position in this proceeding is part of our dedication to supporting our customers and the communities we serve while providing safe and reliable service, especially in the aftermath of the recent wildfires. The company continues to review policies and procedures to ensure we are supporting and providing relief to our customers who were impacted by the wildfires.
Becoming Party to SDG&E’s Wildfire Expense Memorandum Account Coverage: Perhaps most misleading of the coverage was the San Jose Mercury News article that claims PG&E filed to be party to San Diego Gas and Electric’s Wildfire Expense Memorandum Account (WEMA) proceeding in order to make our customers cover costs from the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires. These meetings are not intended to address the recent October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, but rather how the CPUC will address costs given the high wildfire risk and changing climate conditions. These meetings were all scheduled prior to the start of the recent wildfires in our service area.
Here are the facts:
- SDG&E filed a WEMA request before the CPUC to recover costs related to wildfires in its service area a decade ago. The CPUC’s recent proposed decision on this case denied this request. The CPUC has not voted on a final decision related to this request.
- PG&E, along with Southern California Edison (SCE), filed for party status in order to discuss this request with the CPUC in an official capacity. This means that PG&E’s operational, regulatory and legal teams were permitted to speak directly with CPUC decision makers about SDG&E’s request and what the proposed decision might mean for the future of the industry while we face increased wildfire risk throughout our service area.
- Catastrophic wildfires pose real risks to our entire state. These fires do not recognize the boundaries of one energy company versus another. PG&E felt it was important that the Commission hear the perspectives of all the energy companies that operate in California.
- During meetings with the CPUC, our operational, regulatory and legal teams stressed that wildfires and the method with which they are treated presently have real world and potential long-term impacts on the operations, risk management and financial standing of every energy company in the state — it will also impact the way customers can expect energy service. This position is clearly outlined in the official filings we are required to make after all such meetings with CPUC decision makers.
In times like these, the facts matter and we are committed to transparency. Our thoughts are with our customers and communities that have been impacted by these extraordinary wildfires. We realize this is a very difficult time, and we are here to help. As the investigations into the actual causes of the wildfires proceed and the recovery effort continues, we will be with our customers every step of the way to help rebuild the communities we are privileged to serve.
Tim Fitzpatrick is PG&E’s vice president of Marketing & Communications and chief communications officer. Follow Tim on Twitter @PGE_Tim.