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Despite long record of starting wildfires, PG&E says its equipment is improving

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PG&E outage map, September 2021
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PG&E's public safety power shutoff map shows affected areas in California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the major utility that serves most of Central and Northern California, is no stranger to controversy. Its equipment has started or been involved in many massive California wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2019 Kincade Fire and last year’s Dixie Fire.

The utility held a virtual town hall Wednesday afternoon, specifically focused on San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. Both are in severe drought and at high wildfire risk, like much of California right now.

Dave Meiers, PG&E’s senior manager for customer strategy, opened the meeting with an assurance that the utility is taking wildfires seriously.

“We at PG&E are taking bold actions to reduce wildfire risk across all the parts of our operations, to respond to the state's changing climate and to make our system safer every day,” Meiers said.

PG&E has been convicted several times for criminal negligence going back to the 1990’s, and even plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter for its role in the devastating Camp Fire. Disasters like these contributed to the utility’s bankruptcy filing in 2019, which it exited in 2020.

Eric Daniels, PG&E’s government relations representative for SLO and Santa Barbara Counties, said the utility has taken active steps since then to address this recurring problem by expanding what the utility calls public safety power shutoffs. Those are power outages that happen when safety settings automatically turn PG&E equipment off when there’s a risk it could start a fire.

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PG&E
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Two HD smoke-spotting cameras on top of Mount Tamalpais are included in PG&E’s artificial intelligence pilot program (pictured on top two different poles).

“We're making improvements to the public safety power shutoff program to minimize customer impacts, and we are beefing up technology to maximize situational awareness,” Daniels said.

The Central Coast has seen several of these outages lately. A public safety power shutoff last month stretched from Shell Beach to San Luis Obispo, affecting more than 3,500 people for several hours.

Daniels said he acknowledges the disruption that those outages can cause.

“While sometimes it can be frustrating with the outages that can occur, please know that our crews and employees are out there trying to make sure that we do restore power as quickly as we can in a safe way.”

Daniels says other steps PG&E is taking include undergrounding power lines, which he said reduces the risk of wildfire and safety-related outages by taking power lines out of the way of things like animals or trees.

“This will be a multi-year process, and focus in specific areas of our service territory,” Daniels said.

Undergrounding power lines, while effective in reducing fire risk, is also very expensive. PG&E has been criticized by utility watchdog groups for passing those costs on to consumers. There are also environmental concerns around putting power lines underground in sensitive areas.

As the operator of SLO County’s nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, PG&E is also facing pressure from both sides of the nuclear power debate around whether the utility will delay the plant’s planned decommissioning. Governor Gavin Newsom is now trying to get funds to keep the plant operating beyond its 2025 end date, putting PG&E under more pressure to reconsider their decision to close it.

PG&E’s website has recordings of past town halls like this one, like one held on June 22 about wildfire safety in Monterey and San Benito Counties. They will hold one for all PG&E customers on August 10.

PG&E’s wildfire information and resources are available here.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.