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PG&E Says Its Equipment Was Probable ‘Ignition Point’ of Camp Fire (wsj.com)
53 points by gdubs 22 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

From my perspective as a power utility engineer, this turns on whether PG&E made reasonable and diligent effort to maintain and operate its system in a way that mitigated potential fire hazards. Quoting from Ars Technica's coverage of this:


>The utility goes on to state that its Caribou-Palermo 115 kilovolt (kV) transmission line deenergized approximately 15 minutes before a PG&E employee observed a fire in the vicinity of a tower on the line. In addition, "a suspension insulator supporting a transposition jumper had separated from an arm" on the tower in question."

Mechanical failure of a suspension insulator in the absence of something physically falling on it is a very rare occurrence, and would only plausibly occur if the insulator is well outside its normal service life. To me this points to inadequate maintenance. We're talking about equipment that already has a 30-year service life and a miniscule failure rate. Obviously, there will be more detailed investigation to come. But PG&E doesn't look good here, and unless they can show they were inspecting and maintaining that line in accordance with normal industry practices, they are going to get nailed for this.

From other reporting, which cites the same WSJ article, PG&E planned to replace 5 towers on the Caribou-Palermo line in 2013 and delayed the work yearly:


> Mark Toney, a consumer advocate with The Utility Reform Network, told the I-Team, "They promised to fix it in 2013, they promised to fix it in 2014 and 2015 and 2016, it is not fixed today and that is the line that failed before the fire."

>Mechanical failure of a suspension insulator in the absence of something physically falling on it is a very rare occurrence, and would only plausibly occur if the insulator is well outside its normal service life.

What about one or more bullets being shot at it, as numerous locals have stated happened?

That will certainly cause insulator failure. And if PG&E can show that's what happened it would certainly help their case that the ignition was not preventable (by the utility).

will it really help their case, though? I thought the whole issue here is that even if not negligent, if a California utility's infrastructure is a cause (not THE cause) and even if not negligent, the utility can and will be held liable for the damages.

One random source (Thanks Duckduckgo!): https://www.utilitydive.com/news/california-approves-bill-to...

> California courts use a "strict liability" interpretation of the doctrine that holds utilities accountable for wildfires caused by their equipment, even if a company is not found negligent.

Good point. I was only looking at it from an engineering point of view, not legal. Although the strict liability doctrine is common for environmental offenses because it makes prosecution a lot easier * , it might not make sense to bankrupt PG&E for something they couldn't have actually prevented while still fulfilling their service mandate.

* Imagine a company spills 50,000 litres of oil into a river. You don't have to prove what happened or anyone's motivation for doing it, just that the oil was in the river and it came from their facility.

Where are you seeing/hearing locals saying this?

So far the only source I've seen for this is PG&E's own report, which found bullet holes on the pole and on some other equipment nearby, but didn't establish the age of the holes or that they in any way contributed to the fire.

Considering that there are already a couple of experienced law firms shopping their services to affected residents, and that 100% liability for PG&E represents their best chance of financial recovery, I'd be quite surprised if residents were going around saying, "...uh, yeah, so actually we did that one to ourselves."

PG&E staff live local to the area. Are they not locals?

It's a bit disingenuous to just say "locals" when you're talking about "PG&E employees".

I would say PG&E's biggest fault is their maintenance and inspection practices being subpar. Regular line and pole inspections would work wonders to prevent these types of things.

It's hard for PG&E to argue against this when they are willing to spend millions on lobbyists after the fire knowing full well the event may mean regulations that closely resemble what the natural gas utilities have to follow.

Deferred maintenance is typical in the utility world. You look at the item being maintained and the criticality and safety of it and determine if it can be deferred. In something like a transmission line, maintenance should not be deferred as the knock on effects are far greater than say a small transformer on a city block.

In the utility world there are a lot of software options to help you manage your assets and do preventative maintenance of those assets. I am sure a deeper investigation will look to see if those tools were being used and if they were properly being audited.

I'm not a California resident, so I'm actually curious and definitely not trying to have an opinion:

I've heard from co-workers in California that PG&E has routinely been regulated to keep prices at a certain level, and this has hampered their ability to perform proper maintenance. Is this a remotely fair assessment, or grossly incorrect?

PG&E's retail rates have been regulated by the state for a long, long time, since they provide a utility which is vital to the public interest and past deregulatory efforts have immediately resulted in market manipulation and energy crises [1].

However, this doesn't prevent PG&E from performing the appropriate maintenance on their equipment. That fault lies with the policies of upper management. CPUC is well aware of PG&E's obligations to maintain their equipment and regularly audits them and has made hay in the past about PG&E's reactive approach to maintenance [2].

The people who bring up the regulation of retail prices tend to be the ones who have an ideological love for deregulating everything. That's the wrong hammer for this particular screw and hasn't worked out so well in the past.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_electricity_crisis

[2]: https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/PG-E-cited-for-...

Insufficient budgets force managers to prioritize urgent maintenance at the expense of proactive maintenance. I'm confused, if they can't raise their rates, and they don't have enough money to do the proactive maintenance, how do we reach a solution?

FWLIW, I definitely haven't dug into their books, so maybe they're cutting fat checks to execs in lieu of this stuff.

Why do you think they can't raise their rates?

They just have to justify their rate increases. All PG&E had to do, years ago, was tell the CPUC, "we've identified a massive maintenance backlog and we need to raise our residential rates __% to clear it."

You can see this in action now, at https://www.pge.com/en_US/about-pge/company-information/regu..., where PG&E has filed a new publicly-available 2020-2022 rate increase request:

> This GRC proposal will help bolster wildfire prevention, risk monitoring and emergency response. It will also add new and enhanced safety measures, increase vegetation management, and harden our electric system to increase resilience and help further reduce wildfire risk.

> Every three years, PG&E submits the GRC, a proposal for funding its core gas and electric operations. The CPUC conducts an open and transparent review of PG&E's proposal.

The CPUC, in turn, has to deal with angry residents and lobbyists from multiple industries.

You can find reporting from a rate substantial rate increase four years ago, at https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93303&page=1

I think the quote from PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens in the SF Chronicle article I linked two comments up pretty well sums up where fault lies here:

"As we moved from more of a 'monitor only and fix when we can' process, we were much more focused on getting work done,"

PG&E's maintenance strategy for years -- set by management, not by a lack of funds or prohibition against rate increases -- was, "wait until it becomes a problem." CPUC regulators started investigating it around 2008, found a huuuuuuuge maintenance backlog, and then PG&E said, "oh, yeah, our new strategy now is to try to catch up on some of this stuff."

It seems like an obviously poor decision to just be lazy, when they could theoretically raise rates to cover these maintenance costs. What information are we missing that could make sense of the decision?

I know that rate hikes are heavily protested by citizens, so maybe there's some sort of political infeasibility? That would certainly be a mark against a gov't run critical service -- maybe it's really hard (near impossible) to raise rates to cover required maintenance.

>That's the wrong hammer f

So the regulators failed to monitor and enforce maintenance on the PG&E transmission lines, but they also are the only solution because you say so?

Most utilities are regulated at some level. I am not a PG&E employee but work in the industry.

Just about every utility goes through a rate case with the local/county/state governments where they make the arguments for an increase in utility rates. This usually takes into account capital spending and new or significantly improved infrastructure to justify a rates increase.

When the conditions are right its extremely easy for a wildfire to start. Lightning strikes, a glass bottle in the sun, a camp fire, there's so many different ways it could get started. Does it really matter that it happened to be PG&E's equipment in this case? If not them, it would have happened anyway from another cause. It seems unfair to hold them liable, or at least, the extremely hostile tone in these comments seems a bit overboard.

In my early teens my family moved to rural northern Idaho and my dad decided one day to burn some of the brush on our land to clean it up. Well, being from a much more suburban setting we didn't know that that's a real no-no that time of year. The fire got out of control and started burning into the trees and my mom, brothers, and I frantically fought it with hoes and buckets of water while dad tried to plow over it with the bulldozer (we didn't have a phone and this was an hour drive from a fire department). Anyway, we finally got it put out before it got into the national forest bordering our property on the east. Very very scary.

A week later there was a lightning strike fire in the national forest which ended up burning several hundred acres.

> Does it really matter that it happened to be PG&E's equipment in this case? If not them, it would have happened anyway from another cause. It seems unfair to hold them liable...

Okay, so an arsonist sets off a massive wildfire. Should they not be found at fault? Surely the fire would've barely burned at all if it weren't for the conditions.

Nobody disputes that conditions were a contributing factor. On the contrary, that's why it was more important than usual to prevent sources of ignition as much as possible. It wasn't a lightning strike, it wasn't a hot muffler, it wasn't arson, it was PG&E's equipment that ignited the fire that destroyed an entire community, and that equipment failure was the direct result of their chronic poor maintenance.

I think the comments here are quite civilized all things considered. PG&E has a long history of poor equipment maintenance and has been the proximate cause for numerous environmental disasters. They are responsible for the deaths of over a hundred people over the last few years, the endangerment of thousands more, the displacement of tens of thousands more, and the destruction of multiple communities.

No action currently being taken against them is inappropriate under the circumstances.

The fire could just as easily have been started by anyone. Heck, I'm pretty sure you can find similar lapses in maintenance at pretty much any company in California or the country. Any one of them could have caused the fire. Or it could just as easily started from something totally different.

I just feel like the punishment should fit the crime (failing to maintain equipment) and should be fair (apply to all companies who fail to maintain their equipment). Turning them into a scapegoat just because we're out for blood doesn't sit right with me.

Arson implies mal-intent and is a totally different thing. Not understanding the connection?

Based on recent reports, PG&E filed for, and received money for, maintenance of this exact location, in the 2010 time frame, then submitted in writing a justification to postpone those exact repairs in 2013, then again at least once after that.. A speculation is, that if specific uses of those funds for other purposes are found, it could be the basis of criminal charges against individuals in the company.

There are thousands of buildings in NYC that need fire inspections, but only a few inspectors to handle them. How to they prioritize the buildings that need the inspections most? The answer could have prevented this tragic event for PG&E.

Require buildings to pay for a fire inspection. Use that money to hire more fire inspectors.

These solutions are not difficult. Lives are on the line.

There was a big fire on my street last night in New York. The city has a ton of old dumpy buildings.

Aren't most building owners already paying property/city taxes of some form?

This is to say, either the tax is not high enough for services (note that fire, sprinkler inspection, etc are typically additional fees) or the property taxes are not properly earmarked for the direct costs that they entail.

It's also easy to suggest that these costs and inspections could be "free market" attributed to the insurer.

Could it be that no company can bring power to Californians if they were to be held liable for such events? One fire can cost you $10 Billion and to repair /replace /maintain correctly the lines they probably need 100 billion. I guess they could bring power, but at 50 cent a KWh...

Hence, it should be a publicly owned utility like water.

The roads of San Diego are full of potholes. Leaking water lines are causing sinkholes. School fountains had high level of lead for years until a dog wouldn't drink water put into a bowl and an interested teacher started looking into why. Government has too many funding priorities not to mention Government contracts do not come in under time and budget.

Are you saying a private company would do a better job at finding lead poisoning in water?

Is it your hypothesis that San Diego would be run better if only it had better civic leadership? Or that a private entity, with the exact same budget and legislative constrains would do better?

Because those problems you listed sound like money problems, which in California makes me think of Prop 13 as the likely culprit.

Well yes, it turns out you can’t burden a local government with something unless you increase taxes sufficiently to pay for that thing.

Even if there's still sufficient taxes government organizations can behave badly. There's no incentive to fear the government making you accountable if you are also the government so you can be sure that a) is highly unlikely to happen and b) the taxpayers are the ones ultimatly on the hook.

Making your utility state run risks the the same "not our money" and "what are they gonna do, fire the whole department" issues that cause police department to hire trigger-happy jerks who kill people and leave the town with the bill.

> There's no incentive to fear the government making you accountable if you are also the government

True for the US federal government, less true for US state governments, and pretty much not at all true for governments subordinate to US state governments, for reasons which should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.

> Making your utility state run risks the the same "not our money" and "what are they gonna do, fire the whole department" issues that cause police department to hire trigger-happy jerks who kill people and leave the town with the bill.

I think you have misattributed the cause; the cause of that (where it is endemic rather than an error that the department really is trying to avoid but sometimes failing) is that the voting citizens actually want trigger-happy jerks in the police department (because they largely see the police department as a weapon aimed at oeople they dislike) and the bills that they get stuck with as a result are insufficient to dissuade them from that preference (this is helped because local taxes that pay for those bills tend to be weighted away from the local voting population, whether by being regressive—leveraging the income/political participation correlation—or by sweeping local-activity by non-locsl residents into its base.)

But even privileged political elites probably want their electric utility to function VB reliably and not burn down wide swathes of the state.

>True for the US federal government, less true for US state governments,

Disagree fully, especially in one party states. In the federal government if you department is perpetually crap there's always a risk some senator will make cleaning you up their shtick. In state government unacceptable performance seems to be tolerated and allowed to continue indefinitely.

> Disagree fully, especially in one party states.

The risk for state governments (particularly after the passage of—or, more precisely, after the courts started giving effect to the due process clause of—the 14th Amendment, though this wasn't entirely absent previously) is that they will be held accountable by the federal government.

> In the federal government if you department is perpetually crap there's always a risk some senator will make cleaning you up their shtick.

That's also true in state government.

> In state government unacceptable performance seems to be tolerated and allowed to continue indefinitely.

I think that what you are really saying is that there are states whw ere the participating electorate has different standards for what is acceptable, or at least important, than you do, no different from a commercial market where the mass of actively participating customers don't share your priorities.

Private water companies are definitely an option (for example, the San Jose Water Company provides the water utility for much of the city of San Jose). I've yet to hear of a non-government sewer though (outside of individual and small group septic)

How would it help to lower the costs?

It won't at all, but never going to happen. Legislators know full well this will happen again, they need a "bad guy" or they'll take the heat themselves.

Longed them in January- stock's up 200% since. They are in the too big to fail category.

Is this the fault of PG&E or is this the reality of climate change - systems that were once safe are now fire hazards in an increasingly dry climate.

You can actually blame the "Smokey the Bear" policies of the last century instead of climate change. The complete prevention of forest fires have lead to heavy fuel loads on the forest floor. Before this, fires were lower in intensity and actually cleaned out ll the debris.

Also, many species of trees require fire to split open their cones (e.g., Lodge Pole Pines) and other species of plants need fire for germination (e.g. Manzanita). Ponderosa Pines have thick bark for the purpose of surviving fires -- now the fires are too hot. Look at forest pictures in Central Oregon from 120 years ago -- you could drive a car thru since there was not a lot of debris on the forest floor. Fires used to be a good thing. Native Americans would even manage fires with controlled burns.

Now all fires are completely destructive!

Source: Dad was a research scientist for US Forest Service.

Where I've lived (several places in the west), this is well understood and controlled burns/fuel reduction incentives have been long standing policies. I can't say that's the case everywhere, but it definitely is everywhere I've lived.

My family used to go and collect wood from such an area: the policy was to pull all the downed trees and scrub into piles. The forest service allowed people to take wood for free from these piles. What was left was burned, after people took the good logs and it dried out. I still visit this place regularly, and the policy is still the same.

It's become harder to do controlled burns, because in drought conditions, the season where it is safe to do so has become short to non-existent.

I think this argument is popular because it is a way to blame "liberal" environmental policy for the fires.

I don't think that was liberal environmental policy, though. Smokey was created back in the 40s. I doubt it was understood back then what the effects of their fire suppression policies would be longer term.

Why should the federal government be holding on to so much forestland? Private owners would be greatly incentivized to keep the forest productive.

Uh, because it’s owned by all of us, and cutting it down to make toilet paper is a fucking shame and a waste.

The thing is...research scientists like your dad have known this for a long time. If this was preventable by allowing more fires, it would be done already.

Research scientists don't have much input to policy. Smokey the bear is cute and Bambi movies are each more powerful forces against doing controlled burns.

While true in the Paradise fire case, I just want to remind people that this doesn't apply to the Southern California fires. Here, fires are much more frequent and much larger, and thus fuel loads are less than in preindustrial times. Ignition sources are everywhere now, and Santa Ana wind events are more severe due to climate change.

So the challenge in SoCal is keeping an ecosystem intact with such frequent burns. And that our current fire suppression ability is not nearly enough.

The issue in SoCol is fires are normal, but building and living arrangements can't deal with that. If you want to live in those areas you need to build from brick and carry your own protection so a fire won't harm you....

There appear to be several areas in the US whose settlement and continued habitation feel like a testament to human arrogance. Massive floods? Hurricanes? Tornados? Huge wildfires? Check, check, check, check.

I'm not sure if there are many places to build a city without potentially massive natural disasters.

Most of Europe is really tame in comparison. As are huge regions of North America, too.

that covers the fuel portion of it, but there are also other problems as well. If I remember right, Paradise is one of the towns that prevents you from pruning 'wildlife' near your home, and many neighborhoods and ordinances don't allow certain kinds of fireproof siding/roofing, because they 'ruin the look of the neighborhood'.

I kind of actually feel a bit for PGE here, while they are definitely wrong, it was not their choice to not follow guidelines on 'defensible space' for the town, and its roads.. The main roads out of town had vegetation right up to the edges of the roads. how is that safe?

Indeed, the failed insulator on the transmission line which sparked the fire was sitting in the middle of Plumas National Forest. Yet, nobody seems to be holding the federal government accountable for the fire. If/when PG&E becomes part of the government you will get the same level of accountability.

Controlled burns are one thing, allowing random campers to set fires wherever they please seems like a shortsighted policy.

Let me know when you can stop lightening from starting random fires. Until then campers starting random fires is not a problem as we have to be able to handle it anyway.

If a lightning storm is going on there are probably less campers around to be caught up in a blaze, as opposed to during camping weather.

On the west coast, peak thunderstorm season is right in the middle of peak camping season. I have often sat at my site and watched the 'show'.

Well, at least the storm will help put out the fires, so that people won’t get caught up in them

This is overly simplistic. This fire was not just the result of an accumulation of “debris”. You’re leaving out two major factors: years of severe drought followed by a year with lots of rain. This both weakened older trees and produced a lot of young growth which acted as kindling. Conservatives like to pin the blame in forest management just as a desperate attempt to take the heat off climate change. But the extremes we experienced were the primary factors here, and that’s climate change.

>Conservatives like to pin the blame in forest management just as a desperate attempt to take the heat off climate change.

Im pretty sure the primary appeal would be failure of widereaching goverment policy, versus climate change.

I think it's just externalities in action. Fixing your power lines to not sag into trees and warm them up to the point of igniting is expensive. Burning down a city accidentally is cheap (maybe they will be made to pay, but the calculation has to be done as % of a catastrophe happening * cost of fixing catastrophe, which probably ended up quite low). So it's logical what option they went with.

As many people have said, the state of infrastructure in this country is not amazing. When New York City got hit by Sandy, power was off for a week. There was a single point of failure with no replacement stocked; for the largest and most dense city in the country. ConEd doesn't care. Maintaining basic infrastructure is the least glorious thing anyone can do right now, and people treat it that way. The results can be deadly.

Nobody gets a ribbon cutting ceremony and their picture in the paper for maintenance.

The utility companies get really nervous when politicians show up in front of their power lines with giant scissors.

I'm not privy with the gory details, but insofar as I'm aware that seems besides the point.

California is dry. They knew it.

California is drier because of global warming. They also knew it.

Ultimately, this is about the fact that ensuring their equipment is safe (by clearing brush and trees around their lines, etc.) is under their responsibility. And if I got the reporting on this right, they cut corners in doing so.

They deferred necessary maintenance (including replacing outdated equipment & tree clearing around lines) for years. I'm not saying that climate change isn't an important issue to address, but there was another report just a few days ago: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-delayed-safety-work-on-pow... about the necessary maintenance that was deferred. Climate change is being used as an excuse because the fact is there was plenty that PG&E and CalFire could have done to prevent these disasters.

It’s both. The impression I’ve gotten over the years is that PG&E has been negligent. In this situation you have a line they knew was faulty, for quite some time, in a tinderbox, and they sat on their hands.

PG&E can't plausibly claim they were unaware California is dry.

The only thing that was not "normal" was how late in the year it was before significant rainfall came. Look at the rainfall totals since like two weeks after the fire.

It's quite normal for this area to get next to no rainfall from Memorial day into October.

Especially when they have a meteorology department.

How many more utter disasters need to happen before the State of California starts garnishing corporate profits from PG&E for punishment? Why is no one on trial?

Let's just turn this into a completely publicly owned utility, focus on modernization, and be done with it.

Remember the neighborhood that quite literally exploded?

>Let's just turn this into a completely publicly owned utility,

That's a bad idea if you want accountability in the event of a disaster because then the taxpayers are still ultimately on the hook. Making it a government organization all but guarantees government bailout in the event of a disaster. Better to just make PG&E pay (if it does turn out to be their fault) and then roll with whatever happens.

The problem is that government isn't any better at maintenance than private companies, as far as I can see.

Where does the money come from? You either raise prices (taxpayers are pissed) or subsidize from the general fund (taxpayers are pissed).

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