Were PG&E’s unprecedented public safety blackouts effective?

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SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s equipment is passing safety inspections conducted by its crews — and still posing high-risk situations for igniting wildfires.

A jumper cable that likely caused the October 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma County is a recent example. The wildfire burned pristine vineyards and wineries in the Alexander Valley, and it happened during one of PG&E’s controversial Public Safety Power Shutoffs.

When the blaze first broke out, KRON4 reporter Amy Larson spoke with residents living in the valley. They felt confident that the wildfire was not sparked by PG&E because power to their homes had already been switched off for hours before a firefighter came knocking on their front doors, ordering them to leave immediately in the middle of the night.

Still, the Kincade Fire sparked skepticism of PG&E’s new PSPS.

An official cause of the blaze has not been released. PG&E has acknowledged that a jumper cable malfunctioned near where the wildfire began. Flames broke out on Burned Mountain Road in Geyserville the night of Oct. 23 during an extreme wind weather event.

In recently filed court documents, PG&E answered seven questions about what went right, and what went wrong, during its massive San Francisco Bay Area blackouts executed on Oct. 23, 26, 27, 28, and 29.

The Kincade Fire resulted in nearly 100 homes destroyed and zero deaths — a monumental difference from the devastating Tubbs Fire.

State regulators asked PG&E, “How many structures have been lost and how many lives have been lost by wildfires arguably caused by PG&E distribution lines in 2019? The Court is inclined to expect that the answer for 2019 thus far will be many fewer than for prior years, thanks to the PSPS interruptions, but the Court (and the public) would appreciate a more precise answer.”

PG&E’s response was: “In 2019, there have been no fatalities and no structures destroyed in any wildfire that may have been caused by PG&E distribution lines. PG&E assisted CAL FIRE with its November 1, 2019 collection of potential evidence from Tower 001/006, including its collection of the jumper cable that failed. To PG&E’s knowledge, this potential evidence remains in the possession of CAL FIRE.”

A PG&E spokesperson told KRON4 Monday that CalFire investigators have not definitively concluded that PG&E equipment caused the Kincade Fire.

During PG&E’s Oct. 26-29 PSPS blackout, it recorded: “175 instances of vegetation damage likely would have caused arcing if the lines had been energized based on PG&E’s assessment of whether the vegetation was contacting or had contacted the conductor.”

“Arcing,” happens when electrical energy spans the gap between two conductors. Energy with a high enough voltage will jump through the air and ignite nearby objects.

Even after safety crews conduct checks, unforeseen technical failures can still cause wildfires.

“Whatever they are inspecting for, it is not causing the problem. You have a failure at a jumper that was inspected three times in the last 12 months,” a power plant engineer told KRON4. “It’s not like there were a lack of inspections. If corrosion and cracks are not causing it, something else is causing that jumper to fail. Nothing was a red flag, but it failed.”

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Read the complete questions and answers from state officials and PG&E about the October 2019 blackouts below:

Question 1:

“With respect to the late October PSPSs, please supply all of the same type of information already requested of PG&E, for the early October PSPS.”

PG&E Response to Question 1:

“PG&E acknowledges the hardship that the October PSPS events have caused for the millions of people affected. PG&E reiterates its assurance that it continues to work with all key stakeholders to minimize, to the extent possible, the hardship caused by these PSPS events. The Court requested that PG&E indicate how many trees and limbs fell or blew onto the de-energized lines as well as the number of infrastructure failures identified during the post-PSPS patrols and, for each, how many of those tree or branch contacts or infrastructure failures likely would have caused arcing had the lines been energized. PG&E provides that information below.1 PG&E notes that the data collected in connection with this response is subject to interpretation given the nature of the collection of the data, the quality of the photos depicting vegetation and infrastructure and the circumstances during patrols (e.g., completing documentation while power is being restored). PG&E also notes that its ability to provide the Court with information about how many line contacts (from trees, branches or infrastructure failures) would have caused arcing involves some amount of speculation and is based on PG&E’s best view based on factors such as the vegetation’s location and the damage the vegetation or infrastructure failure appears to have caused. The information that PG&E provides herein was collected in connection with the patrols that PG&E conducted of (i) the approximately 7,800 miles included in the October 23 PSPS event, and (ii) all line miles2 included in the October 26 and October 29 PSPS events.3 These patrols were conducted to assess whether the lines were safe to re-energize, including whether line or equipment repairs were necessary before the lines could be re-energized.

October 23 PSPS Event — PG&E identified approximately 19 instances of vegetation damage that appear to have occurred during the October 23 PSPS (e.g., a tree branch laying across a power line.)4 PG&E’s current information with respect to these 19 instances is as follows: • 15 instances of vegetation damage likely would have caused arcing if the lines had been energized based on PG&E’s assessment of whether the vegetation was contacting or had contacted the conductor (e.g., a tree branch is laying on two phases of a conductor); and • 4 instances of vegetation damage likely would not have caused arcing (e.g., the conductor was covered). Each of the 15 locations where vegetation damage occurred that likely would have caused arcing is identified by county and coordinates on Exhibit A, attached herewith. Exhibit A also includes information regarding the date of the most recent vegetation management work at each of the locations where arcing likely would have occurred. PG&E identified approximately four instances of damage to its infrastructure that appear to have been caused by extreme wind and/or other fire conditions present during the October 23 PSPS (e.g., a broken tie wire (the equipment connecting the insulator to the conductor)).5 PG&E’s current information with respect to these four instances is that all four instances of infrastructure damage likely would have caused arcing based on PG&E’s assessment of the location of the damaged equipment (e.g., two phases of conductor made contact). Each of these four locations is identified by county and coordinates on Exhibit B, attached herewith. Exhibit B also includes information regarding the date of the most recent inspection or patrol of the equipment at each of the approximately four locations where arcing likely would have occurred.

October 26 and October 29 PSPS Events —- PG&E identified approximately 241 instances of vegetation damage that appear to have occurred during the October 26 and 29 PSPSs.7 PG&E’s current information with respect to these 241 instances is as follows: • 175 instances of vegetation damage likely would have caused arcing if the lines had been energized based on PG&E’s assessment of whether the vegetation was contacting or had contacted the conductor (e.g., a tree branch is laying on two phases of a conductor); • 52 instances of vegetation damage likely would not have caused arcing (e.g., the conductor was covered); and • with respect to 14 instances of vegetation damage, PG&E is unable to determine whether arcing likely would have occurred. Each of the 175 locations where vegetation damage occurred that likely would have caused arcing is identified by county and coordinates on Exhibit C, attached herewith. Exhibit C also includes information regarding the date of the most recent vegetation management work at each of the locations where arcing likely would have occurred.

PG&E identified approximately 44 instances of damage to its infrastructure that appear to have been caused by extreme wind and/or other fire conditions present during the October 26 and October 29 PSPSs.8 PG&E’s current information with respect to these 44 instances is as follows: • 24 instances of infrastructure damage likely would have caused arcing based on PG&E’s assessment of the location of the damaged equipment; • 19 instances of infrastructure damage likely would not have caused arcing; and • with respect to one instance of infrastructure damage, PG&E is unable to determine whether arcing likely would have occurred. Each of the 24 locations where infrastructure damage occurred that likely would have caused arcing is identified by county and coordinates on Exhibit D, attached herewith. Exhibit D also includes information regarding the date of the most recent inspection or patrol of the equipment at each of the 24 locations where arcing likely would have occurred.”

Question 2: If a jumper cable separates and falls away from an energized transmission line, will any arcing or sparking plausibly occur, even briefly, between the energized line as it falls away? If a jumper cable becomes disconnected from an energized line, what other scenarios could plausibly produce sparking or arcing?”

PG&E Response to Question 2: Arcing refers to an event during which electricity moves through the air to the nearest conducting surface. The nearest conducting surface could be the other end of a severed conductor, a conductor on another phase or a grounded object such as a tower leg. The separation of an energized jumper cable from an energized transmission line may result in arcing between the jumper and a nearby grounded object. Where a jumper is connected to a single conductor, arcing can also occur between the two ends of the disconnected jumper at the point of separation as it falls away. By contrast, where a jumper is connected to bundled conductor (i.e., where a jumper is connected to two conductors for the same phase that run parallel to each other), arcing typically would not occur between the two ends of the disconnected jumper as the parallel conductor would provide an alternate path through which the current would run. In either jumper/conductor configuration, arcing could still occur between the energized jumper and a nearby grounded object. PG&E cannot speculate whether arcing or sparking can occur under such circumstances given the host of variables that determine the probability of arcing or sparking. Such variables include, among others, the proximity of grounded objects to the detached jumper cable and line voltage, which could affect whether the air becomes ionized (a predicate for arcing).”

Question 3: What scenarios could plausibly cause a jumper cable to separate from a transmission line during a windstorm?”

PG&E Response to Question 3: During a windstorm, a jumper cable on a transmission line can become separated from its connection point in a variety of ways, regardless of whether the jumper had a preexisting condition. For example, high winds can result in the mechanical failure of a jumper cable in good working condition or exacerbate a pre-existing condition on the jumper (such as corrosion or metal fatigue). Another potential scenario is that during a particularly severe wind event, debris carried by the wind could strike the jumper cable and cause it to sever.”

Question 4: For the Burned Mountain Tower in question, when, how and by whom was the jumper cable in question last inspected?”

PG&E Response to Question 4: PG&E understands this question as referring to the detached jumper cable on Tower 001/006 on the Geysers #9-Lakeville 230 kV Transmission Line (the “Geysers #9 Line”), referenced in PG&E’s Electric Incident Report filed with the California Public Utilities Commission on October 24, 2019. Based on PG&E’s records, the jumper cables on Tower 001/006 were last inspected on July 18, 2019 by a PG&E troubleman during a routine detailed ground inspection of the Geysers #9 Line, in accordance with the schedule for routine inspections set forth in PG&E’s Electric Transmission Preventive Maintenance (“ETPM”) Manual. The ETPM Manual instructs inspectors to visually examine all transmission line components to determine their overall condition and identify for correction any abnormalities, including, for conductors, rust, cracks, gunshot damage, corrosion, twisting, loose connectors, damaged or missing dampers, and insufficient clearance from the tower or other components. No new conditions on Tower 001/006 were identified as a result of the July 18, 2019 detailed inspection.9 Based on PG&E’s records, earlier in 2019, Tower 001/006 was subject to enhanced inspections as part of PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Inspection Program (“WSIP”). On February 6, 2019, a PG&E contractor crew assigned to WSIP performed a climbing inspection of Tower 001/006. On the electronic checklist used to document the climbing inspection, the personnel performing the inspection answered “No” in response to the prompt, “Jumpers in poor condition”. On May 11, 2019, PG&E collected aerial drone photographs of Tower 001/006, and on May 23, 2019, PG&E’s Drone Inspection Review Team (“DIRT”) performed a drone inspection of the tower by reviewing the drone photographs. During that review, the DIRT team used the incorrect form (one for non-steel instead of steel structures) to document the inspection.

Both forms included the same question about the condition of jumpers. The DIRT team answered “N/A” in response to the prompt, “Jumpers in poor condition”.10 Tower 001/006 is a double-circuit tower that supports two transmission lines in the Geysers area in Sonoma County, California: the Geysers #12-Fulton 230 kV Transmission Line (the “Geysers #12 Line”) and the Geysers #9 Line. Based on PG&E’s records, in addition to the inspection of the jumper cables on Tower 001/006 that occurred on July 18, 2019 in connection with the routine detailed inspection of the Geysers #9 Line, described above, Tower 001/006 was also inspected by a PG&E troubleman on July 11, 2019 in connection with a routine detailed ground inspection of the Geysers #12 Line. No new conditions on Tower 001/006 were identified as a result of the July 11, 2019 detailed inspection of the tower.”

Question 5: Should we now be worried that other jumper cables inspected in the same manner have potential failures that have gone undetected?”

PG&E Response to Question 5: As part of its WSIP, PG&E recently completed enhanced inspections of the vast majority of its transmission, distribution and substation assets in High Fire-Threat District (“HFTD”) areas, including approximately 700,000 distribution structures across more than 25,200 line miles, approximately 50,000 transmission structures across more than 5,500 line miles and 222 substation facilities. Inspection findings were documented through highresolution images and reviewed by dedicated teams with experience in system maintenance, engineering and maintenance planning to evaluate identified conditions. The electronic checklists used to perform these enhanced climbing and drone inspections of transmission structures specifically asked inspectors to look for and document any abnormalities with respect to transmission line components and hardware, including jumper cables. As of August 31, 2019, PG&E had repaired or made safe all of the highest-priority conditions found during WSIP inspections of its transmission, distribution and substation assets. In particular, as a result of its WSIP, PG&E identified two Priority Code “A” conditions relating to jumper cables on transmission structures, both of which were timely repaired and made safe. PG&E is incorporating the lessons learned from WSIP into its ongoing regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance of electric infrastructure. PG&E is also actively investigating the cause of the failure of the jumper cable on Tower 001/006 on the Geysers #9 Line.11 As one aspect of its investigation, PG&E is seeking to determine whether the configuration of the jumper cable on Tower 001/006 contributed to its failure and, in addition, whether there are similarly configured jumper cables in PG&E’s system. PG&E is also seeking more generally to determine whether there may be jumper cables that may be susceptible to failure for any reason in PG&E’s system. PG&E is not currently aware of information suggesting that there are jumper cables on other transmission structures in its system that are susceptible to potential failures. In the event PG&E becomes aware of any condition affecting a jumper cable that could lead to failure or otherwise presents a public safety risk, it will take corrective action.”

Question 6: How many structures have been lost and how many lives have been lost by wildfires arguably caused by PG&E distribution lines in 2019? The Court is inclined to expect that the answer for 2019 thus far will be many fewer than for prior years, thanks to the PSPS interruptions, but the Court (and the public) would appreciate a more precise answer. Please answer as of NOVEMBER 29.”

PG&E Response to Question 6: In 2019, there have been no fatalities and no structures destroyed in any wildfire that may have been caused by PG&E distribution lines. PG&E reiterates its commitment to continue to work aggressively to further strengthen its programs and infrastructure to maximize safety and mitigate wildfire risk. In preparing this response, PG&E reviewed available data associated with fires of ten acres or greater to which PG&E’s distribution lines may have contributed that potentially involved vegetation contact or equipment failure in 2019.12 PG&E’s response does not include data pertaining to ignitions that may have been caused by third-party contact with PG&E’s equipment (e.g., animal or vehicle contact) or ignitions for which the cause is unknown. PG&E relied on data that it compiled in the ordinary course of business about incidents in its service territory through November 29, 2019. This analysis represents PG&E’s current understanding of the circumstances.”

Question 7: A local television station has suggested that the PSPS process itself has sparked wildfires. Has there been any such instance, even arguably?”

PG&E Response to Question 7: PG&E is not familiar with the television story referenced by the Court, or a wildfire being sparked by the PSPS events. Prior to initiating a PSPS, PG&E proactively reaches out to customers using multiple methods, including interactive voice response (IVR) calls, text messaging, email and personal phones calls, to alert its customers that a PSPS may occur. This is because, among other reasons, there are public safety risks associated with turning off power, including impacts to first responders, critical medical care and the provision of water, sewer, and other essential services, including street lights and signals and communications systems. PG&E advises its customers that in taking steps to minimize the safety risks and inconvenience caused by a power outage, customers should avoid using candles due to the risk of fire. In the event candles must be used, PG&E further advises its customers to exercise extreme caution. PG&E also urges its customers to turn off heat-producing appliances such as ovens, stovetops and irons during an outage, because this practice helps to eliminate fire hazards that may occur when power is restored. Finally, PG&E advises its customers to avoid using permanent or portable generators unless they were installed safely and can be operated properly. Improperly installed or operated generators pose a risk of damage to property and may endanger the lives of customers.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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