As PG&E accepts the latest round of blame for setting off California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever, the state’s largest utility says it’s exploring innovative means of preventing similar disasters in the future.
A new report by state regulators details how PG&E failed to properly inspect and maintain the equipment that ignited the November 2018 Camp Fire, which devastated the Northern California town of Paradise, killing 85 people and destroying 18,804 structures.
A California Public Utilities Commission investigation of the events that led to the catastrophic blaze concluded the company violated 12 state safety rules, which regulators deemed not a rare instance but instead “indicative of an overall pattern of inadequate inspection and maintenance of PG&E’s transmission facilities.’’
Among the violations cited in the 696-page report, the utility neglected to conduct detailed climbing inspections that could have detected the equipment malfunction that sparked the inferno, and failed to correctly prioritize a safety hazard.
An aging tower where a worn hook broke and helped ignite the fire had not been subjected to a climbing inspection since at least 2001, the report said.
A previous investigation by Cal Fire, the state’s fire protection agency, had determined in May that PG&E power lines actually started two blazes near Paradise, with the first one overtaking the other.
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PG&E, which in January filed for bankruptcy protection as it faced a slew of lawsuits and more than $20 billion in liability from the Camp Fire and other destructive blazes in 2017 and 2018, did not contest the CPUC findings, saying they confirm Cal Fire’s conclusions.
“Without question, the loss of life, homes and businesses is heartbreaking. The tragedy in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018, will never be forgotten,’’ the company said in a statement. “We remain deeply sorry about the role our equipment had in this tragedy, and we apologize to all those impacted by the devastating Camp Fire.’’
What is PG&E doing now to attempt to limit future wildfires in California?
The statement also points out the steps PG&E has taken to mitigate wildfire risks, including enhanced inspections in fire-prone areas through the use of drones and climbing crews, along with accelerated repairs of damaged equipment.
In addition, PG&E is among the utilities looking into technology-based solutions to the pressing problem of wildfires, which have become increasingly destructive for a number of reasons that include climate change, a major contributor to vegetation drying and becoming more combustible.
PG&E and its downstate counterpart Southern California Edison are testing a diagnostic tool developed by Texas A&M engineering professor B. Don Russell that purports to detect power line issues before they cause equipment malfunctions.
The tool, known as Distribution Fault Anticipation, detects variations in electrical currents caused by deteriorating conditions or equipment and notifies utility operators so they can fix the problem, Russell said.
“The technology is being evaluated along with other sensor technologies as a way to detect emerging conditions on the electric grid and improve situational awareness,’’ said PG&E, which expects to complete the testing phase midway through next year.
PG&E looks to Australia for possible alternatives to power shutoffs
The company is also studying an approach employed in Australia, which has been bedeviled by bushfires caused by electric lines. The technology, which goes by the name of Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiter, drastically and almost instantaneously reduces the electrical current on a power line that goes down.
“The project team is working with Australian utilities who have successfully implemented REFCL and are expanding their deployments,’’ PG&E said.
If successful, either of those programs figures to be a welcome alternative to the highly unpopular power shutoffs PG&E and, to a lesser extent, other California utilities implemented in October and November as a preventive measure amid dry, windy conditions.
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PG&E defended turning off the electricity to millions of people, arguing the measure proved effective in minimizing wildfire danger, but the company was lambasted by the public and elected officials alike.
Talking about Distribution Fault Anticipation, Bill Chiu, managing director of grid modernization and resiliency at SoCal Edison, warned that technological options are not a magic cure for the state’s wildfire ills.
“There is no silver bullet,” Chiu said. “This is really more of a preventive measure. … The important point is this will be one of the suite of technology that will help us better assess the condition of the grid.”
Contributing: The Associated Press