PG&E estimates costs of up to $150B for wildfire court order

Trees and power lines with PG&E plan numbers
Ashley Zhang/Staff

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Pacific Gas and Electric Company, or PG&E, stated that to address the growing wildfire threat in California, the company will have to follow a plan to reinspect its electrical grid, requiring more than 650,000 employees and an estimated cost of $75 to $150 billion.  

This response comes in reaction to a wildfire-prevention court order filed Jan. 9 from U.S. District Judge William Alsup, the federal judge overseeing the conditions of PG&E’s probation after charges related to the San Bruno pipeline explosion in 2010.

According to the court order, PG&E would have to reinspect its whole electrical grid before Jun. 21 and remove or trim trees that could fall onto its power lines, poles or equipment in high-wind conditions. PG&E would also need to shut off its electrical grid until the environment is “determined to be safe under the wind conditions then prevailing.”

“PG&E would inevitably need to turn to California ratepayers for funding, resulting in a substantial increase — an estimated one-year increase of more than five times current rates in typical utility bills,” the company said in its filed response to the order.  

PG&E spokesperson Paul Doherty said the company has been faced with “more intense winds, record heat, record rainfall coming out of the drought.”

According to Doherty, PG&E had a vegetation program for many years but began a community wildfire safety program for an added precautionary measure for wildfire risks that began in early 2018 after the October 2017 wildfires.

The program includes  “new and enhanced safety measures” and a long-term “hardening” of the company’s electrical system. This process includes meeting new state vegetation and fire safety standards and creating greater clearances between trees, their limbs and power lines, Doherty said in an email.

Overhanging branches surrounding power lines, dead and dying trees, an accelerated electrical safety structure and routine maintenance are some focuses of the program, according to Doherty. The program will also ensure that the company proactively turns off lines in the event of extreme fire risks, according to Doherty.

“To address this growing wildfire threat, we are determined to take bold, immediate actions to keep our customers and communities safe,” Doherty said.

More than half of PG&E’s service area is in extreme or elevated fire-risk areas, according to the California Public Utilities Commission’s High Fire-Threat District map via the Safety and Enforcement Division. According to the map, parts of Berkeley Hills and the Southside neighborhood are in extreme and elevated fire-threat areas.

According to Doherty’s email, PG&E “will work through the California Public Utilities Commission’s open and transparent ratemaking process to recover costs.”

A court hearing about the PG&E’s probation will be held in San Francisco on Jan. 30 and will bring further details about specifics on the company’s modifications for the court order.

Sarah Chung covers business and economy. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sarahchungdc.