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This electrical transmission tower has a problem (twitter.com/tubetimeus)
1666 points by danso 10 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 460 comments

This is definitely a failure on PG&E's part, but I'm still not sure how much sense it makes to assign them blame for this fire. The environment they're operating in is somewhat ridiculous - the forest is so dry and overgrown that pretty much any flame source will start a fire large enough to burn a huge area; this specific tower failure is basically just the thing that revealed a much larger issue.

With proper engineering and maintenance, PG&E could probably reduce the frequency of fires significantly, but there's always going to be a non-zero risk of fire, both from power lines and other sources, and it seems basically inevitable that one of them would have started another fire at some point. If this failure hadn't happened, and the same fire had happened a year later due to an "excusable" cause (like a tree falling on a line, or someone's house catching on fire), would that outcome have been any better?

PG&E does ultimately have some responsibility, due to the fact that they were the immediate cause, but it really seems like people want to blame PG&E for the entire situation while avoiding the much harder truth: that this area will likely never be safe without significant policy changes (if ever).

> With proper engineering and maintenance, PG&E could probably reduce the frequency of fires significantly, but there's always going to be a non-zero risk of fire, both from power lines and other sources, and it seems basically inevitable that one of them would have started another fire at some point.

I don’t understand. You’re conceding that if PG&E were a competent and responsible company they could significantly reduce the rate of fires. The fact that some fires might still happen doesn’t mean that 10 fires aren’t better than 1,000 fires.

No the root of the problem is that there's too much forest that hasn't burned. Blaming PG&E is missing the actual problem.

For instance the Beirut explosion was the fault from the welders causing the explosion. Yes, but the larger and more important issue is why are there so many explosives in the first place? California's mismanagement with it's forest is the same issue. These forests should be periodically burned the remove rather than letting them accumulate into such a large blazing fire.

> California's mismanagement with it's forest is the same issue.

The majority (57%) of forest land in California is managed by the federal government even before considering the part managed by tribal governments, which are also out of state control though subject to federal oversight. Only 3% is directly under state control.

47.7% of the total land in California is federally owned (not uncommon in the West, where most federal land is; outside of 12 Western states, the Federal government owns only 4% of the land in the rest of the country.)

Western land management problems are, generally, problems of federal administration, not state government.

EDIT: But, it's important to note I am not saying the fires involving PG&E equipment are a federal problem rather than a PG&E problem. While the current federal administration and their cheerleaders likes to blame forest management and seems blind to the fact that, if true, that would be a federal issue, PG&E’s deliberate, knowing cutting of maintenance corners, curtailing inspections and cutting inspector training, knowingly leaving specific faulty equipment in place years after it was identified as faulty and dangerous, and covering up that it did all those things, are well documented. While they accepted a plea bargain to 84 counts of manslaughter, the facts documented in the investigation would seem to more than support conviction of 2nd degree murder (of the “abandoned and malignant heart” type), based on other cases where that has been applied in CA based on willful disregard of safety factors.

Yeah, lots of issues came together for the perfect storm.

Personally, I do think that PG&E should have seen a harsher punishment. If some pyro had went in and started the same fire, they'd have been in jail for life. PG&E does this shit and they got a slap on the wrist.

But, your point is very valid. This place was a tinderbox. They were one lightning strike, on cigarette butt, one illegal bonfire away from going up in flames spectacularly.

The federal government has blame for not maintaining land.

Beyond that, they have blame for not aggressively addressing climate change (which has contributed to the level of dryness).

All of this points to a common societal issue. Rather than spend money to fix things, we wait until everything blows up before asking questions.

This shit scares me. How much more of our world is teetering on the edge of catastrophe?

I think one of the key points in that Twitter thread is that the distributed responsibility disincentives anyone from pushing to tackle difficult problems (because no professional or personal liability is involved) and the centralization of profits ensures that the dysfunctional administrative structure stays in place.

You get much larger fires when they go undetected for significant periods of time. Lightning strikes can happen anywhere, but most ignition sources are close enough to people for early responses. Power lines are therefore unusually bad as they regularly start fires in forests a significant distance from people making both detection and response more difficult.

If power companies what to run lines through these areas they need to take responsibility for what’s going to happen.

>"Rather than spend money to fix things, we wait until everything blows up before asking questions."

Are you buying? It's really easy to justify spending other peoples money if you make everything about life and death.

> California's mismanagement with its forest is the same issue.

I agree that the forests should be managed differently, but if this being "California's mismanagement" is an actual thing as opposed to political disinformation, I'd love to see a couple links to back it up.

Some quick googling suggests that it's mostly a Federal problem, which has very different implications especially right now. Am I wrong?

Here are some articles explaining California's role in forest mismanagement.[0][1][2]

I think what's interesting, and a real problem, is that all reasons about causes of the fires is seen as a political stance, when the factual causes of the fires should be not a political issue.

All of these things are true. They're not political statements: 1. CA mismanaged its forests by not doing proper controlled burns 2. Climate change making conditions ripe for fires 3. PG&E was negligent in maintaining its infrastructure

But people want to assign the blame to either #1 or (#2 and #3), and by doing that they are implicitly taking a political stance.

It's not productive and makes finding robust solutions to these problems harder.

[0]: https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/01/why-isnt-california-...

[1]: https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/article239475468.html

[2]: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Top-scientist-knew-Bi...

> All of these things are true.

That's highly debatable.

> They're not political statements:

At least the first is a political judgement.

> 1. CA mismanaged its forests by not doing proper controlled burns

The vast.majority of the first within the State are not subject to state management; 3% of the forest land is controlled by the state or administrative subdivisions. 57% of forest land in the state (and 47.7% of total land area of the state) is directly controlled by the federal government and some of the rest by federally-but-not-state supervised tribal governments. In between there is some private land which the state has less control over than the state-owned land but more than the federally-controlled land from which it is excluded from management. So even if there was mismanagement by the state, there's very limited potential impact.

> 2. Climate change making conditions ripe for fires

This is true.

> 3. PG&E was negligent in maintaining its infrastructure

This understates the case; PG&E was between grossly reckless and actively malicious in maintaining it's infrastructure.

I’ll grant your final comment on #3 but on the others I disagree.

If CA was requesting that the federal govt do controlled burns to better protect their citizens from wildfires, and the fed govt refused, then you would have a point, but from the research I’ve done (and I cited 3 random examples above) that’s not what happened. In fact it’s the opposite where organizations which controlled the land desperately wanted to perform prescribed burns, but were prevented from doing so because of local regulations.

As far as #1 being a political judgment: That you think #1 is false and 2 and 3 are true, one can guess how you feel about a host of other political issues, most have which have absolutely nothing to do with forest management.

What about all the federally owned land in California suffering from the same “mismanagement?”

It’s also not clear to me that - regardless of the party in question - it is fair to call it mismanagement unless credentialed people had pointed out the risk of not allowing controlled burns and the government insisted on doing them anyway because of different priorities, aka mismanagement.

Read the articles I posted. you can call it what you want, but "credentialed people" have been desperately calling for prescribed burns for years only to run up against local regulations. specifically: "local air boards around the state, and a lack of consistency can create problems for burn projects"

It's not news. Fire management folks have been preaching controlled burns for decades.


Whats even nuts is many types of trees only propagate with fire. Fires are required to open the cones and let the seeds out.

They are actively killing the native forests by over zealous fire suppression and lack of controlled burns. Environmentalism in name only - sound and fury signifying nothing.

Humans have known to regulate forest fuels for 1000's of years. This modern stubbornness is hubris based on ignorance of the real technology that has been developed, over tens of thousands of years, in forest management.

And #4 almost 50% of the land is under federal control and thus California state govt has very limited influence and ability to ask for burning that.

> And #4 almost 50% of the land is under federal control

Over 50% of forest land in the state, but almost 50% of the total land area of the state.

This is fairly common in the West and wildly different from the situation outside of the West.

blame the feds, blame CA, blame the natural state of forests in CA... Any way too much blame is on PG&E.

What an odd sentiment...


There is such a thing as a multi domain fault.

He never said this wasn't PG&E's fault, just that out of 100% they don't bear all the fault.

I mean, California is in the middle of burning down from a lighting complex at this moment. Suing mother nature isn't going to do much good if you want to put the blame on her for that fire.

As long as people live in the Wildland Urban Interface, and we live in a climate that's getting hotter and drier year over year, and we don't have defense in depth around our homes, houses are going to continue to burn and people will die from it.

At the end of the day we cannot stop the fires, they are a natural part of the landscape. The question is can we reduce the impact on humans? Some we cannot, the smoke will still affect us negatively. Some we can, a hard parameter around our house with no flammable bushes, and eves that protect against cinder build up that set houses on fire will help.

The twitter thread makes this exact point. The camp fire would likely have happened with or without this maintenance error on PG&E's part. This is because a tree fell on a different power line and started the Camp B fire, and this was determined not to be the result of a preventable error. Just that fact alone suggests that the main component of the problem is not PG&E's neglect.

Do you believe we should not penalize preventable deaths just because non-preventable deaths also happen?

That's not the question here. Rather, it's about which causes contributed to the problem—blaming everything on the most proximate cause is convenient but doesn't reflect the situation.

An extreme analogy: if a car is built in a way that a fender-bender causes a fire[1], how much of that is on the person who cause the fender-bender? Fender-benders are preventable by better driving, but the consequences were massively exaggerated because the car was unsafe.

The PG&E example isn't this clear but if the severity of the fires is substantially caused by poor forest management—an empirical question to which I do not know the answer—then it's clear that PG&E should not shoulder the entire blame. We're still left with the thorny question of how much blame they deserve (certainly not none), but the rhetoric I see around it is using the company as a scapegoat to let the CA and federal government avoid taking any responsibility at all.

[1]: I don't know if the Ford Pinto was actually this bad, but this is a hypothetical example anyway :).

There are quite likely many other towers with the same vulnerability, the same potential breakage. Those will cause other fires when they break. There are multiple reasons why they should address those very old towers that haven't had maintenance, because they'll cause other fires.

There are laws about negligence and inspection for utilities. There should be laws about forest management, I suppose, but the law is what determines culpability, not the cofactor analysis of the actual problem root.

In the fender-bender example, I can see how you would structure your logic the way you have. As an example of how I and others might structure it: The car causes the accident when a wheel falls off, and the accident happens to happen where there was a prior gas spill. The presence of the gas spill is unfortunate, but the car caused the accident, and that should never happen with good design and maintenance. The accident was exacerbated by the presence of gas, causing a fire and injury and death, etc.

Now, to bring it full circle. Replace a car with a train (the situation is largely under the control of a single company), the accident with a train falling off the rails and hitting a gas pipeline, AND the company knew the gas pipeline was there, and knew the danger all along, and still managed to not put on a proper maintenance plan to ensure the train didn't derail especially in a place that has a gas pipeline right there.

> but the law is what determines culpability, not the cofactor analysis of the actual problem root.

We are talking about what ought to be, not what is. The law falls under the category of is, and does not imply ought. I think everyone in the conversation understands that PG&E bears some amount of legal liability for these fires.

I think we should talk about how to design systems such that preventable deaths happen less often (supposing the costs to prevent them are appropriately scaled). I think hitting PG&E with arbitrarily large fines in this situation will not ultimately have much beneficial effect on the rate of preventable deaths. I think that their negligence happened to be the spark, but if not something else would have caused it. Like a tree falling on a line, a lightning strike, or a gender reveal party. Even if the fine led to perfect compliance on their part (it wouldn't/won't), that would not substantially reduce the rate of preventable deaths. This is because their negligence is not the central cause that most significantly raises the probability of large fires.

The fires are a direct result of human-caused climate change. I’ve lived in Washington all my life and 2015 was the first year we got smoked out during the summer. Since then it’s persisted year after year.

We’ve completely screwed up our planet.

Eh, right, this is why the North American west has a 100,000 year fire record?

Climate change makes the problem worse, but the fact is fires are a natural part of the regional ecology.

If we keep looking at fires as one problem with one cause, we will keep dying in fires and losing houses.

Crazily dysfunctional country.

The elements of that blew game I got are "climate change makes weather warmer and drier, which increases risk" question about that Mr. Trump said "California is terrible in clearing out the forests" to which it is being responded "we need funding and many forests are federal forests" always good to work on blaming for the past, not to work on a solution for the future ...

>I agree that the forests should be managed differently, but if this being "California's mismanagement" is an actual thing as opposed to political disinformation, I'd love to see a couple links to back it up.

There are two narratives here. The Democrats want to blame Climate Change. Republicans want to blame California's mismanagement. Both are correct but there is no policy that any government could implement that will solve climate change in the next few decades. But you literally have Biden going around and blaming Trump for these fires when there is no climate policy that United States could have implemented in the last 2 decades that would have made any difference.

On the other hand, regardless of climate change, California has implemented policies that created this problem and California can implement policies that will prevent future wildfires from spreading out of control. But California is a mess. Controlled burns are constantly challenged in court by activists and NIMBYs and bogged down by environmental regulations. California needs to perform controlled burns of around a million acres of land, but is doing something on the order a few thousand even with a backlog of 20 million acres[1]. Logging policy has clear-cut forest replaced with dense bush[2]. And bad vegetation management policy has been the mantra for decades in California.

In this case, the Democrats are wrong and are engaging in outright lying in order to deflect blame. Climate change is an important issue, but climate change policy is not going to result in a solution for these wildfires.

>Some quick googling suggests that it's mostly a Federal problem

How? How is this a federal problem?

[1] https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/01/why-isnt-california-...

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-10-14/newsom-clea...

The vast majority of forest land in California is owned by the federal government and is National Forest land. California can't just go and run controlled burns in those federally controlled forests. That would need to be done in cooperation or under the direction of the US Forest Service and should be funded by the US Forest Service since they own the land.

If the federal government wants better forest management in the National Forests, they should increase funding for forest management and hire more employees into the US Forest Service.

You can certainly blame California for allowing people to build homes at the wildland urban interface and for not requiring homeowners to take better fire defensibility measures. The forests are a more complicated issue and the feds take much of the blame.

If the feds were the problem, why aren't other states such as Texas or Colorado which have similar geographical features to California experiencing the same perpetual fire seasons over and over?

Sure - you can have that discussion. What the Democrats are doing is blaming climate change and Trump's climate change policy. Surely you agree that that is just dishonest.

The only solution to the wildfire problem offered by Trump is that California should do a better job raking up leaves/pine needles and should remove more dead fuel from forests. I think that is much more intellectually dishonest, especially given that Trump is in control of the US Forest Service, which is the agency that would be in charge of raking the leaves and removing the dead trees...

If Trump drastically increases the budget to the USFS and starts a new and improved forest management program, I will gladly applaud the effort. Sadly, I doubt that will happen.

I see Trump as largely out of the discussion; for instance during the Carr Fire he said they needed more water (besides the stupidity of using water, Carr Powerhouse is a major transfer point for the California water system).

Newsom relies on blaming PG&E and Global Warming; he seems to be the political version of the Deep Pockets Theory.

Neither politician offers help for people whose homes are in imminent danger.

> Newsom relies on blaming PG&E and Global Warming

I'm actually very surprised we haven't heard him blame the feds.

Yes. Climate change should be met with mitigation (to avoid further climate change) and realistic adaptations of forest management.

But, to make matters worse, the baseline expected rate of fires is higher due to climate change, and is much higher due to PG&E negligence.

We can and should attack all factors with regulation, maintenance policy change, etc. The fact is, we had maintenance policies for PG&E's portion, and they were negligent.

>the baseline expected rate of fires is higher due to climate change,

Yes. But we can't control the climate. Or rather climate change will require policies spanning decades or centuries.

>and is much higher due to PG&E negligence

Sure. PG&E should be held accountable for their part. But to mark them as a cause is not right. California was a tinderbox waiting for a spark to start the explosion. It could have been anything, and in fact, there were many 'sparks' that started a bunch of these fires. You make PG&E the scapegoat, you're going to miss the true culprit - bad vegetation management.

What do you mean by “political disinformation?” Some news outlets you don’t like published the story? How much “moral clarity” does the outlet need to have before you’ll consider the article?


The sentiment of the post is what confuses me. The idea that California wildfires are caused by forest mismanagement is being covered by many reputable news sources. The sibling posts contain four such links. Some of those sites may have ideological leanings such that they focus more on that mismanagement than climate change, but the other sources have ideological leanings so they focus more on climate change than forest mismanagement. Regardless, we’re not talking about some Russian Facebook bot here.

Hence my question: do you need the New York Times to say it before you’ll believe it’s not “political disinformation?”

When the leading lights of one major US political party are loudly denying the science of climate change, and in service of that denial are claiming that the current fires in Oregon and California are the result of mismanagement by the other major party and not due even partially to climate change, then yes, as a non-expert I would like to see some responsible sources backing up a statement that appears to support the former position.

Which bryan0 and zbrozek helpfully provided. I still call it disinformation coming from the President, but these sources do help make clear what CA's shared culpability here is. And no, I don't need it to be the NYT.

I think it was reasonable to ask for the backup, and the fact it was given makes me think at least some people agree. I absolutely give people here the benefit of the doubt about their good intentions, but there is a context right now of national political figures working against science, often by repeating lies that might sound reasonable to some at first.

I hope that helps clear up the question of sentiment.

edit: clarity

Seeing as there is a lot or harangue and no data being presented, here is some data https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s42408-019-0041-0#...

In general, the study contends that the fires are fuel-dominated (too much forest) and not wind-dominated fires. It also contends that the California drought climate has contributed significantly to the problem.

> On the timber-rich interior US Forest Service (USFS) forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, anomalously large fuel loading due to a century of successful fire suppression and timber harvesting practices has been a dominant factor

The problem is likely too much forest at these level of droughts, so forest management bears some responsibility. Economically speaking though if PG&E has been given such a lucrative business opportunity as a sanctioned monopoly, they ought to be held responsible as well.

Also, the part that is not clear to me and I would appreciate if someone has an answer - speaking cynically, if PG&E as a private company causes damage and tax payers pay, and if PG&E as a state run company causes damage and tax payers pay, why do I care who runs it? Is it just that the prevailing politics in California is that corporate=bad and civic=good?

Under this approach, we would have to burn all of our natural forests down to the ground because of climate change. It will soon be too dry for any forest to be in it’s natural state. Plus I don’t see how this is strictly a California problem, federal funds are required to manage federal lands. Especially since the current federal administration is fueling the onset of climate change like no other. I’ve witnessed the billions spent by PG&E in trimming trees away from these poles, but they should have spent a little more and gone the distance to just bury these lines underground. PG&E is a failed experiment. They have shown when confronted with the challenge of what’s best for the public and what’s best for the shareholders, they always choose the latter

That's not how natural dynamic systems work. There is a level of stability (some optimal level of forest) that the natural system wants to have, and it will naturally burn away excess if the people were not present. Much of the fires this year were caused by lightening (nature).

> Plus I don’t see how this is strictly a California problem

Indeed it is not just a California problem. Believe it or not, there are other places in the country that do more controlled burns and manage fires better. The US Southeast burns nearly 2x the acreage as California on an annual basis.

> The US Southeast burns nearly 2x the acreage as California on an annual basis.

The US Southeast has a land area of 580,000mi², California is 163,000mi². So, just to be even as a proportion of land area, the former would need to burn 3.5 times the acreage of the latter on an annual basis. Unless your claim is that California’s problem is that its controlled burns are too extensive, I'm not sure what your point is.

Not sure what point you're making, but my point is there are individual smaller states in the US that do more prescribed burns by acreage than California. To name a few, Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina [1]

[1] https://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/May2019_Report_TheBur...

> my point is there are individual smaller states in the US that do more prescribed burns by acreage than California

Then you should have said that.

And, to the extent you believe that's a problem, you should probably address the entity that controls most forest land in California (and directly owns and excludes from state control almost half of the total land of the state.) Their executive HQ can be contacted at:

  The White House
  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
  Washington, DC 20500
Yeah, I know President Trump likes to say the problem is California not “raking forests”, and his cult-like followers just echo his propaganda with some light editing of wording and interjection of random tangential factoids to give it a veneer of rationality, but the bottom line is that, like most of the West and unlike the US outside of the West, California land management, and even moreso California forest management, is predominantly a federal issue, from which the state is excluded from much of due to the Supremacy Clause.

The natural systems are out of wack, my point is that the way the earth is heating up, we would eventually need to burn every forest to compensate for the growing temperatures. This stance is ridiculous. I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t have such ravaging fires, and lightning happened all the time. Better yet, scientists can look at past patterns and they too have proved that climate change is real. Ask a firefighter who’s been around for more then 30 years, they will tell you. The belief that Trump is even remotely correct on this issue is to believe complete foolishness. Alas, here we are.

Forest management is in conflict with home ownership and building code in the forests, and it's sufficiently complicated that what's happening is the only way forward. What support is there to say private land ownership within forests: federal, state, and BLM land? If there were no private land ownership, there'd be no political resistance to controlled burns, there'd be no demand to put out fires immediately. The instant humans started to build in these areas, their rights directly lead to the changes in natural state of the forests.

There are similar problems with homes on beaches and in flood plains. Not only is private home ownership allowed, it's federally subsidized via the National Flood Insurance program.

I don't feel like your analogy makes sense here. The fact that there were explosives stored in the Beirut Port for years is exactly the same kind of institutional failure as PG&E failing to maintain their equipment for decades.

It's true that there are natural factors at play here, but in the case of Beirut, that might be more akin to asking "why is there such a large market for ammonium nitrate?"

It's possible for more than one cause to contribute to an event. California needs to manage its forests better, but PG&E is also clearly at fault.

Does California need to do this, or the Federal government?

Where I'm from in NorCal it's all National Forest except for the parts that are private land.

A quick search indicates that some 58% of California forest is managed by the Feds and about 3% by the state.

So -- in addition to PG&E being at fault, shouldn't we be talking about Washington more than Sacramento here?

California, federal had tried to do controlled burns and was rebuked at local air boards.

Which parts are burning? The federal or state?

AFAICT both, with more of it being federal. I also think it matters (in terms of response) where the fire starts.

My take on this is that PG&E way/is behaving negligently and the investigation that resulted from the fire uncovered that. They are literally the cause of the fire in the sense that their actions are what produced the initial flame.

However, I don't think the fault should lie with them because something was going to start a fire and they just happened to be the unlucky bunch stuck holding the match. There is no way you could say "if it wasn't for their negligence there wouldn't have been a fire."

> There is no way you could say "if it wasn't for their negligence there wouldn't have been a fire."

This thread is going in circles. What people are saying is that PG&E should be expected to do what's required of them to maintain their equipment, and that failing to maintain their equipment was a cause of this specific fire. You're right, it's basically bad luck that their decades of negligence led to this disaster, but it still did lead to it. Whether or not there was a pre-existing condition that made fires more likely.

Because the majority of fault lies at California/Federal government whoever is in charge of clearing the forests regularly not PG&E.

Again going back to the Beirut Explosion analogy -- yes the welders could have taken better precautions. Perhaps someone could have maintained the explosives better too. Maybe we could even hire firefighters on standby and install alarms next to the port.

But none of this removes the large pile of explosives that shouldn't be placed there.

That dockside warehouse needs to handle its explosives better, but the welder is clearly at fault.

If PG&E is maintaining power transmissions lines that are surrounded by a known gigantic reservior of combustible material then they are still responsible for when their equipment ignites that material.

That doesn't remove the onus on land management to engage in best forestry practices, but PG&E still has a significant burden of responsibility.

I don’t disagree with your point that there’s shared responsibility.

But a big reason the welders aren’t the focus of the blame is that they were the first ones to die in the explosion.

The consequences for PG&E were simply 4 millions here, which is a ridiculously small amount.

Also, you don’t treat individuals and companies the same way.

> Blaming PG&E is missing the actual problem.

No, two things can be true at the same time.

1) CA sucks at forest management. 2) PG&G was grossly negligent in maintaining their power lines.

That both happened to be true at the same time just happened to be exponentially bad for all the people affected :(

That is part of it, the other part is the homes of paradise did not take 'best practices' into account for their homes. (or town, that one narrow road out seems like a deadly bottleneck) There were many news articles at the time talking about how homeowners couldn't prune back the woods far enough from their house, couldn't use less flammable materials in their home construction, etc.

The only way to get developers and builders to build more resiliently is more strong regulation. As it stands, developers have zero incentive to cut into their profit to build a fire resistant structure since they immediately sell it and it doesn’t matter what happens after that, at least to them. In fact, If they are a follower of the perverted philosophy of the past couple decades, if have shareholders it would be their duty to maximize profits by not spending extra.

The policy of not clearing underbush at all just seems ripe for even more wildfires.

A wildfire that regularly clears out only the underbush is what was the place historically (and the ecosystems have adapted to this), human prevention of these fires plus climate change has led to fires consuming way more material than they should.

No, the problem is that PG&E was relying on a century-old part of unknown metallurgy to suspend a 115 kV conductor.

Worse. They ignored the easily inspectable fact that the part was worn halfway through.

There must be many more like this. Have the been replaced?

> Yes, but the larger and more important issue is why are there so many explosives in the first place?

Ah, so the problem is negligence. And what negligence was there? PG&E not maintaining their towers as clearly documented (or rather, not documented as the thread shows), or even possibly the federal government not maintaining Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest lands? No - it's California's fault, spoken as if even a healthy forest wouldn't burst into flames if someone threw molten hot aluminum on a kindling pile.

But where could that idea possibly have come from? Perhaps the Federal govermnent, whose head has basically been parroting that exact line? What an astounding coincidence.

The problem has been built up for decades through both democratic and republican administrations.

I think the point is PG&E should be blamed for negligence but not for the fire[1]. They could follow all regulation to the letter and there will still be a non-negligible chance that their infra will cause a fire simply because existing regulation is not suitable for the environment their infra stands at.

[1] Although I think the thread is rather vague as to the damages assigned to PG&E no?

That's usually not how laws works though. If you act irresponsibly, break laws, don't perform due dilligence and so on, you are also responsible and get blame for the consequences.

If you act in good fait, follow all regulations, act responsible, the law might see it as an accident where you don't get blame.

With this logic, one would blame welders for the Beirut bombing, because they weren’t wearing side shields on their safety glasses.

Well, they clearly did not establish the fire load in the immediate area of the weld, as is common safety practise in the industry. You wouldn't want to weld near an active gas line either, you want to ensure it's not filled with gas.

1000 fires would actually be probably better than 10 because they help keep flammable material at bay and reduce the size of the fires.

Is there data from California about lightning as a fire cause? I read in Canada about 50% of all forest fires are started by lightning.

Coastal California lightning is rarer as is thunderstorms. Eastern California they are more common, but no where near Midwest levels.

The storm that can through last month started several of these fires with dry lightning or very little rain accompanying the lightning.

Lightning may coincide with rainfall, I've heard. If this is true one might presume less severe fires as a result.

It is a simple fact that lightning does start fires, especially in places like the American west, where lightning is not always accompanied with much, or any, rainfall at ground level. The severity of any fire is determined by how it develops in the hours and days that follow its ignition, long after the storm has moved on or dissipated.

That's not disputed. But starting a fire in completely dry conditions is worse than starting one that potentially coincides with rainfall, all other things being equal.

Falling from a height of 10.1m is also worse than falling from 10.0m all other things beeing equal

The LNU and SCU lightning complex fires have burned about 750,000 acres. The August complex(also started by lighting) has already burned 796,000 acres.

So your saying we should introduce chaos monkeys into power grids to improve robustness?

Actually yes, since they have a huge incentive to Run to Failure. Chaos monkeys would provide a consistent source of failures to make them do their maintenance.

Similar to red teams in security.

While I appreciate the merits of chaos engineering, this comment lacks an understanding of the impact of these incidents, particularly in rural areas with a history of forest mismanagement.

People die [like my neighbors here in Sonoma, CA] - it's not an EC2 instance that gets replaced.

Further, one does not just 'restore' the power grid after an outage:


You can do simulations, either run it in forward or reverse. Pick a random town, burn it down, run the flame front backwards and find the paths and lines that caused it. Then look at the probable failure rates of those lines.

Run it forwards, pick and event and allow it to run its course.

When designing simulation runs there are bunch of dimensions to consider

* Fidelity or simulation resolution, spatial and temporal

* Number of runs, it is a linear search, spatial search, random, gradient

* If you are testing specific parameters, like will this bridge hold this static load, multiple simulation runs are done with the inputs varied slightly, input sensitivity analysis. [1]

The simulations don't have to be entirely on the computer, they could also couple with them physical and human components. One could page k/n employees that might be on duty at the random time. Response times in real life could be inferred by response to the actual pages. But people were harmed, no actual failures occurred.

If society approached civilization seriously, we would apply the full power of science AND engineering while we fail horribly at the application of engineering and suffer its excesses.

Given other pro PG&E comments in this thread, and how so many factors were in play and this and that. It all boils down to money and acceptable risk and how to package that up in a way that PG&E gets a slap on the wrist. Well done!

It very well could be that we as a society, decide we are ok with these risks, but that we need mediation. And it could be that we A) turn off at risk lines during likely conditions, as shown in simulation or via direct perception B) Have fire bomber planes in the sky during high likely occurrences.

But money is cheaper. You gotta spend it to make it.

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

OK. I like the increased utilization of simulations idea.

Your Option A is basically how it is done already for Public safety power shutoffs: they (PGE) have an extensive forecasting department, and they de-energize certain areas for risk based on their analyses. It doesn't work all the time: E.g. Camp Fire [2].

B isn't really an option when many of these incidents occur overnight. Otherwise Cal Fire already fly's their spotters during the day during Red Flag events. And their is a network of remote cameras (alertwildfire.org) for surveillance.

This all is beside the point though: Controlled burns in CA have decreased by 50%+ since the 90s/2000s, and 90s era environmental policies killed logging operations in a lot of CA. Fuel built up, and after that, thermodynamics take over.

If we can get back to mitigating the fuel load - controlled burns [1], and require PG&E to put more budget towards brush clearance and line maintenance - instead of mandating they enter into losing renewable contracts [3] - then we can certainly avoid a lot of these issues.

1 - https://www.propublica.org/article/they-know-how-to-prevent-...

2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Fire_(2018)

3 - https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-wins-ruling-allowing-it-to...

You showed your agenda too soon!

These are all tactics, PG&E had no strategy other than decide by committee so they couldn't be responsible for the resulting deaths and losses.

There are so many folks trying to slip their agendas into the remedies in this discussion. All of those are literal smoke screens for the greed driven structure of PG&E.

PG&E didn't start doing meaningful shutdown on lines until after the Camp fire.

I suspect that the best results may come from simpler modeling, such as modeling the system with a physical model,like modeling aerodynamics in a wind tunnel, or boat hulls in a wave tank.

How much would it take to make a useful scale model in a warehouse somewhere? I'm certainly not knowledgeable enough to understand how the smaller scale would relate to real-life fires, but it certainly seems plausible that, for a relatively small outlay, we'd have an important tool for establishing a much better understanding of wilderness fires. Given how much CA alone spends fighting forest fires, a 10 or 20 million project to build facilities and fund researchers seems like an obvious and much needed project.

That makes sense, but can we do it in winter when it is less likely to start a fire?

Isn't the point that starting fires regularly keeps any particular fire small due to lack of fuel (since it has been burned in previous fires)?

Seems like doing it in winter would defeat the purpose.

The committee to keep the chaos convenient and comfortable.

No, GP is saying you need to start doing controlled fires on a regular basis, to reduce the accumulation of flammable material. Power grid is not related to that.

That's not down to an energy company though, that's down to forest management which is troubled by funding and politics.

Only if they occur often enough.

PG&E isn't setting fires often enough to do that, so the downsides of every random fire they set strongly outweigh the upsides. If we need more fires, we should use carefully planned ones.

PG&E isn't in the business of setting fires, and shouldn't be. It's CalFire's job to manage forest fires, including setting controlled burns.

Support for 1,000 fires being better than 10: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/26/a-trailblazing...

This is a ridiculous argument. Why don't we forcefully tear down all of PG&E's infra every few years. They'll be forced to rebuild it with the latest safety standards... smh

It lacks context, but the idea itself is not ridiculous. That's pretty much how original Australians dealt with fuel buildup. Move and burn often. Given specific ecosystem, in a very literal sense, 1000 fires are better than 10 in the same area over the same time period.

I lived in Africa. The parks used to run controlled burns, every year or two, of the savanna grass.

They tended to do this during the [very] wet season.

But PG&E is still on the hook for taking better care of their infrastructure.

It all comes down to dollars and [non]sense. Some actuary has determined that an occasional lawsuit and rotten press run is cheaper than maintaining the wires.

Here in New York, many of the buried water mains that transfer water to the city from upstate are well over a century old. Many are made of cast iron, and even wood.

There’s no plan to dig them up and replace them with more robust materials. They just wait for them to fail, then replace the small part that failed.

They do give city water some real taste, though. It’s probably actually nutritious.

> water mains that transfer water to the city from upstate are well over a century old. ... They just wait for them to fail, then replace the small part that failed.

At some point, all the older parts will get so old that it fails frequently and at a greater rate, that the fix cost will greatly exceed the budgeted amount.

Being a quite cynical person, I would say that up to that point management will have collected fat bonuses, then cry poverty and push for ruinous rate increases.

Along the same lines, CT just had an issue with a rate increase that doubled most bills.

The point being spreading out the cost over years and limiting "downtime" is a lot better than 1 huge event that leaves customers without. (re: Detroit and bottled water)


> There’s no plan to dig them up and replace them

Yes, but that’s disingenuous. The largest civil engineering project in America right now is the new water tunnel for NYC. It’s been in progress for fifty years.


Thanks for that. I’d completely forgotten about it. Hopefully, it wasn’t planned by the same folks that planned East Side Access. I have three friends that have retired, while working on it, and it’s many, many years behind schedule. Each of them had planned to be still working for the MTA, when it was done.

We went with that plan at my HOA for some of our water lines.

They replaced a corroded and failed section of pipe, repressurized the line and POP! went the next section... Two or three times as I recall.

No, the point is I think that they could reduce the risk further, they are currently maintaining their network, the question is what benefit would be gained by increasing the cost of their maintenance, or whether they would be absorbing the risk from someone else's lack of maintenance (e.g clearing forest debris/making fire breaks). Remember, power lines are not the only source of fires, lightning being a much more frequent cause and power grid maintenance isn't going to alter that risk

>You’re conceding that if PG&E were a competent and responsible company they could significantly reduce the rate of fires.

No. He's saying that even if "PG&E were a competent and responsible company", the fire would still start, but through some other mechanism because it is a powder keg waiting to be set off by something. California wildfires are due to bad forest management policy spanning decades.

Suppose the government left barrels of leaky oil around, then you cause a small fire, which escalates into a huge fire as a result. It's fair to say that you caused the fire. It's probably also fair to say that the bulk of damages are due to government negligence. The debate is where we fall on that spectrum. I would think the power company should be punished as if it caused fires on an average managed forest but there's going to be nuance.

Point is there's two parties with some degree of negligence.

But that’s not the full analogy. The full analogy would be that the government left oil barrels around the whole state, and you went around the state starting hundreds of small fires, and if you had not done that, there would still have been a few fires from other sources, but there would be far fewer fires overall.

Take driving as an analogy - there's a non-zero risk of having a crash, but it's significantly higher if you don't follow the rules (drunk, speeding, broken car). This feels like PG&E was betting it wouldn't happen to them.

I think for a utility the risk should be very very close to zero, you can really do a lot of planning around it and make sure that if you're running infrastructure in a dangerous area to take sufficient measures to avoid all likely failures, and if one part breaks it doesn't end in a catastrophe. Maintenance schedules are there for a reason and keeping records helps improve the data for risk models.

But there might also be some blame on the general planning of the area, if it's too dangerous to run a power line, there shouldn't be one there. If other causes are likely, it shouldn't be unreasonable to expect this to be one of the government tasks to make sure that they set up some form of protection.

An even better analogy is Jenga. California's uncontrolled fuel load was going to result in massive fires at some point. Yes, PG&E could have reduced the chance of it being them, which would be great for PG&E, but would make no difference to California.

Yes this makes sense - back to driving, it's like a road that clearly wasn't safe to operate, but the drunk driving didn't help either.

The fuel load decays over time, so a long enough wait period and the next fire is independent of the last fire. Thus, fewer PG&E fires just means less fires rather than there being some independent amount of fire that’s always going to happen.

If anything they need to have more responsibility in such areas not less responsibility. If they can’t detect a tree is at risk or not then either cut down more trees or use underground power lines in that area.

This is mostly incorrect, and a really bad take at understanding fires in semi-arid climates.

The fires we are having are a human caused problem, and by human I don't necessarily mean PG&E. Trying to put this blame on one company is going to accomplish pretty much nothing and just lead to more deaths in the future as we piss around looking for the wrong people to blame and avoid solutions.

Also, underground cables still cause fires. I know this from experience.

Amusingly, mostly incorrect in this case translates to true. The point is it’s not a linear increase with time. Yes, controlled burns can make a serious difference, their also a significant risk on their own as unlike wetter climates you get a lot of fuel at the same time.

Blaming PG&E is relevant because they are one of the few companies operating in these areas. When fires start in suburbs they rarely grow out of control, it’s when their far from human habitation that you see major issues. Another option would be adding sensors to PG&E equipment to allow for rapid responses and thus vastly limited growth.

Underground cables still causing fires doesn’t mean much when their significantly less likely to cause wildfires.

>When fires start in suburbs they rarely grow out of control, it’s when their far from human habitation

Do you know what 'Wildland Urban Interface' means?

Do you know where most of the houses burn?

Do you understand why this is the case?

Yes, yes, and yes. Your point?

Well clearly, the fuel load accumulates faster than it decays, or else the fires would not have reached this scale in the first place.

In the short term yes, but like many things it’s an S curve.

> This feels like PG&E was betting it wouldn't happen to them.

PG&E is regulated, like most utilities are.

Where are/were the regulators?

>>I think for a utility the risk should be very very close to zero

They can lower the risk by a lot, but are you ready to pay 65 cents (or whatever) a KW ? PG&E, with all its faults, has been put in an impossible position: one fire (that is bound to happen no matter what because wires fail) can bankrupt them since it can burn hundreds of thousand of acres, thousands of homes, untold deaths and other property destruction.

You can't really blame them for everything. Manage forests, stop building a town in the middle of the freaking forest and raise electricity rates for a complete audit of all the lines. Otherwise, nothing can be done, just talk.

I think that's a very poor argument, for a few reasons:

1) We are talking about criminal negligence, saving money is not a good reason of not dealing with crime.

2) we are talking about parts not being replaced in 100 years, the OP is not asking for some crazy level of maintenance thats going to break the bank.

3) once you take into account collateral damage and potential punitive damages, is it actually any cheaper?

4) whats the point of having cheap electricity if ut's inreliable, and ready to fail at any moment?

If 65 cents is the actual cost then it should be the price. You can't be charging people 20 cents or whatever, but then they also have to pay to have their homes rebuilt every few decades, pay for insurance, and pay for firefighters.

Don't forget, at the current rate we're all subsidizing the rural power users. They should absolutely pay more if it costs more.

I think blaming rural power users is a dangerous idea for a couple reasons.

> Don't forget, at the current rate we're all subsidizing the rural power users.

I'm sure this is true to some extent—just as it is for telecommunications and mail delivery—but this tower wasn't just for rural power users, was it? I think it was some sort of high-voltage long-distance transmission line. There's a region-wide electrical grid, in part because power generation doesn't happen in city centers. Urban and suburban consumers depend on rural transmission lines.

> They should absolutely pay more if it costs more.

Rural areas produce the food urban areas need. I suppose your goal is to encourage people to move from rural areas to urban areas to lower total societal cost. Presumably you don't also want the food supply to fall and/or food insecurity to increase among the urban poor. So it'd be irresponsible to make this change without careful monitoring and matching policy changes to prevent those effects. You need to keep food affordable, to keep farming affordable, to keep providing services farmers need affordable, etc.

Rural people love their subsidies. We should encourage people to live in denser areas, not all cities, but towns. How many rural people do you think are involve in food production? It's only around 10%.

> Rural people love their subsidies. We should encourage people to live in denser areas, not all cities, but towns. How many rural people do you think are involve in food production? It's only around 10%.

I have no idea. It's a hard question to answer. You are sure with no citation so I think you're wrong.

How do you define "rural" and how do you define a "town"? The US Census—which probably was directly or indirectly the source of your 10%—defines rural as not urban. Urban clusters must have a population of 2,500, [1] which already excludes a lot of what I'd call towns. And as a spot check, I don't see Grundy Center, IA on the list, despite meeting the population requirement (and not being included in a larger urban cluster AFAIK). Maybe it fails one of their other requirements. It is in their list of "incorporated places".

How do you define "involved in food production"? If I live with my family on a farm but picked "truck driver" as my occupation, am I involved in food production? If I am a teacher to farmers' kids, in a town of 500 people (see above), am I involved in food production? etc. Farmers don't exist in a vacuum. They need services like everyone else.

Even if you are right, "only about 10%" doesn't mean you won't cause pretty significant problems for everyone by messing with those folks...

[1] https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/geography/guidance/g...

I'm not saying we mess with these people, I'm saying we charge market rate, or closer to it, for electricity. Maybe setup a program they can apply for to get a subsidy. That will make the process much clearer and everyone can track how much is being subsidized.

We shouldn't just throw money at companies and hide the subsidies. The help should go to the people who ask for it and that way it's much clearer to everyone involved.

I understand the constraints and I'm not blaming them for everything, creating this dangerous situation is also a great issue, but I think this was handled very badly on their part as well.

As a utility they should have a set of rules and guidelines on how to operate safely. If it isn't possible in a situation, they should say no to the other party. With the rules they should be able to point at exactly what is missing and get the other side to fix their part (e.g. the risk or get them to pay extra for maintenance) or stop operating that bit. This looks like they intentionally looked the other way.

While I am a huge supporter of free market and capitalism, due to the massive regulations on utilities it is no longer a free market, at least for power generation and delivery.

Thus the better model for utilities are Coop's, member / consumer owned businesses where the goal is delivering reliable, safe power at a reasonable rate.

Utilities by their nature lend themselves to Market Monopoly, regulations added to that almost assures it so for most people having that service provided by a member owner COOP instead of an Investor Owned corporation will result in a better safer, more reliable outcome

Hm...it's unclear whether you read the stream. They had reason to believe that the C-hook would fail after 97-100 years, yet weren't even checking the C-hooks on towers that were 100 years old. That seems willfully negligent.

I think the point is that PG&E negligently caused sparks. But many things can negligently cause sparks, including dozens of human and natural causes. Even among power operators, sparks seem to not be too rare (for example, the tree that fell on the line).

So while PG&E can be blamed for that specific fire that doesn't really address the root cause of "why can some sparks in one place cause such huge destruction and can we do anything about that?"

I'm just not so sure that if you accidentally knock over one domino and a cascading whole room full of dominoes falls that you should take the blame for the cascading effects. Maybe whoever setup the dominoes behind the first one shares the blame as well...

> But many things can negligently cause sparks, including dozens of human and natural causes.

My favourite: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-mendocino-compl...

Someone tried to stop an angry yellowjacket nest by driving a concrete stake into the hole in the ground and their hammer thew off sparks and started a 459,123 acre fire-- the largest recorded in state history at the time.

I suspect that man was lying... It is very very very hard to start a fire with a hammer, even deliberately...

Yet if you had a wasps nest, you'd totally be tempted to douse it with a bit of gasoline, believing you could put it out before it spread to anything else... Except you couldn't...

And when the investigators came round, you'd totally tell them about the stake but not the petrol...

> I suspect that man was lying... It is very very very hard to start a fire with a hammer, even deliberately...

Out of the millions of people who use a hammer to strike metal on metal every day, one of them will manage start a fire eventually.

Even the unlikeliest events are actually pretty likely at scale.

Sure, two thirds of them may just be lying, but unless you can prove they are (which really shouldn't be that hard, considering burning fuel leaves obvious traces), you should assume each of them are telling the truth.

I laugh at the image of a statistical ensemble of people hammering bees with hammers, with one of them causing a fire.

I laugh at the image of a statistical ensemble of people claiming to to bees with a hammer while instead setting them on fire with gasoline, with one of them actually hammering bees with a hammer.

Aside, I use a very large clear glass bowl to kill the nest. Flip it over the hole, leave it for a little over a week and the nest will be dead.

It has to be a clear bowl to trick the wasps to think that they can still get out otherwise they will dig a new exit.

Heh, and you might just be the next person to start a massive fire from a lensing effect.

Problem solved, I guess.

If the forest is so sensitive that hammer sparks set off a fire, maybe no humans belong in the forest - except for the humans proactively trying to manage burns.

The fire started in grassland, not in a forest. As it grew, it spread to forested areas. There is a lot of grassland out in California and it gets very flammable in the summer when it all dies out and dries up. Dead grass is basically well-aerated vertical kindling. It's so easy to light that when I was growing up outside of Sacramento, a common cause of local wildfires was cigarette butts flicked out a car window. When we mowed the lawn in the summer, we would keep the garden hose charged. Basically, it burns, burns easily, and burns quickly.

"why can some sparks in one place cause such huge destruction and can we do anything about that?"

Forest fires happen naturally all the time, but we've gotten so good at putting them out quickly, that at some point a huge buildup of dry underbrush will have amassed in a huge area, until a fire happens that is so big that we have no way to stop it. We're basically accumulating these huge powderkegs instead of letting the gunpowder burn one handful at a time.

In addition, as the original twitter stream says, climate change promoted additional growth of vegetation, which added even more fuel for wildfire. It would be an interesting topic of research to see which one contributed more to the proliferation of wildfire we are observing in the west coast.

A couple whose trailer they were towing with an RV had a flat tire and sparks from the rim scraping on the pavement touched off the enormous and deadly Carr Fire of 2018.


> I'm just not so sure that if you accidentally knock over one domino and a cascading whole room full of dominoes falls that you should take the blame for the cascading effects.

Yes, you do and should take the blame under the eggshell skull doctrine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggshell_skull). If the initial action was unlawful, then the perpetrator bears liability for the full set of consequences -- even if those consequences are more severe than normal based on unknown factors. Here, PG&E was clearly guilty of gross negligence in their maintenance, so they bear liability for the consequences.

Worse yet, this background situation wasn't previously unknown. The enhanced fire risk was widely understood, which would put PG&E under an even greater obligation to ensure their equipment was operated safely.

One cannot reasonably blame them for all fires, but one can reasonably blame them for fires with a direct causal link to their negligence.

> Maybe whoever setup the dominoes behind the first one shares the blame as well...

There was a famous story here a couple years ago here where a mountain biker lit some toilet paper on fire and caused half a hillside to go up in flames.

Negligence, sure. Stupidity, no doubt. But it's also dry here in the summer, and that hasn't changed year after year. So sure, I guess, let it be the weather's fault or global warming, why not.

It's easier, afterall, to place the blame on other people or forces than to change behaviors that would prevent disasters in the first place.

No. I think the point is can we change our forestry practices. Ignoring the root causes and blaming the first dominoe isn’t helpful because there will always be some dumb thing to set off a massive fire. We have been assigning blame - is that effective at stopping the fires?

We do blameless post-martens as a best practice in engineering so that when we don’t have constant outages of critical internet infrastructure and that it comes up quickly when issues arise.

Why ignore a successful strategy that may show better results than just blaming whoever happened to be responsible for some sparks this time around? Who are you going to blame when lightning is the spark?

It's hard to have a "blameless postmortem" when 86 people are dead.

The NTSB doesn’t seem to have much trouble with it.

> blameless post-martens as a best practice in engineering

First, those don't exist -- despite any evidence to the contrary.

Second, engineers don't have shareholders demanding stock buy backs.

Fires can start from natural causes too. It's ignorant to say that this sort of disaster can be prevented by fixing behaviour, and it's a special form of hubris to think that you can "unstupid" everyone. This is the worst plan you can have. Relying on all individuals not doing something stupid for a long time is a lost cause, just look at the state of covid in the US. There are people literally throwing parties or sending their kids to school while they know that they have covid.

Many things can crash cars but if you crash one you're liable.

If the wildfires in CA were a new thing this season, I wouldn't want to witch hunt this year's culprit. But it's been a huge hazard for years now -- negligent sparks can't be tolerated.

I love the car comparison because I think the comparison to car manufacturers' stance pre-"Unsafe At Any Speed" seems quite fitting. In fact car manufacturers at least had drivers to blame, whereas PG&E can really only blame themselves or "acts of god"

The reason it "some sparks" caused such huge destruction is because PG&E was also not maintaining the brush underneath their towers. All they were doing was literally fanning the flames by flying over it with a helicopter.

> literally fanning the flames by flying over it with a helicopter.

That's a hilarious image, but I doubt that literally happened

It was just a little flare to add to the comment :) But I guess a lot of people took that part far more seriously than the first part.

We're all thinking about C-hooks because that's what failed here. What if the foundation had failed? Or any one of a million other things. I'm not saying that PG&E are clear by any means, just that it's really easy to point fingers after an incident. Be very wary of hindsight bias.

So very much of America's infrastructure is aging and used past planned capacity. How can you tell ahead of time which infrastructure will bite you the worst? Water control structures (dams, levees, locks) are a great place to look because of their potential for widespread, costly disasters.

If this C-hook had failed during a rainstorm, there would have been localized power loss for some time, and extra work for a repair crew.

Now, as it happens, California is naturally prone to wildfires; add to that climate change, poor vegetation control, people wanting to live next to trees[0] - it really is only a matter of time before people are killed. Just look at all the fires burning now. How many of them were caused by faulty C-hooks?

Take the example from Fight Club:

> "Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

The Narrator has provided us with a very vivid example: a fiery crash caused by a specific part. But what about all the other components? What about the other cars on the road? What about the guy that falls asleep while driving an affected vehicle and has a single car accident? There's a lot of noise in the real world.

0. For instance, I also live next to trees and love it (but not in California).

The issue isn't specifically what failed.

The issue is that the failure in this case was both predictable and ignored. PG&E willfully failed to inspect/maintain the equipment.

Accidents happen and you can't control for everything. But this is a very clear and obvious failure. The failure isn't specific to what failed in this case (The c-hook) but the failure of PG&E to do any due diligence.

> We're all thinking about C-hooks because that's what failed here. What if the foundation had failed? Or any one of a million other things. I'm not saying that PG&E are clear by any means, just that it's really easy to point fingers after an incident. Be very wary of hindsight bias.

I'm not sure that's the point. C-hooks are an example of a preventable accident. The problem isn't the c-hook itself but the policy / culture at PG&E and probably outside the company (as you point below) that allowed this to happen.

> So very much of America's infrastructure is aging and used past planned capacity. How can you tell ahead of time which infrastructure will bite you the worst?

Exactly. I see the twitter thread as an example of this broader issue. Of course, the solution is not to go around and check every single c-hook. The solution is to set up a plan (at the utility, state or federal level) so that this kind of avoidable accidents happen much less often.

I'm not saying that nothing like this would ever happen again, but even if such a plan could reduce such events by ten times, that would look like a success to me.

> "the solution is not to go around and check every single c-hook"

The solution is precisely to check every single one at least a few times a century. This is not that much to ask.

Right, I should clarify. PG&E absolutely should have known about, and prevented, the specific situation that caused this fire, and the fact they didn't do so is a huge problem. However, the surrounding area is such a high fire risk that a fire almost certainly would have occurred even without this failure (which the thread mentions: https://twitter.com/TubeTimeUS/status/1306377626487894017), and so the specific cause of the fire seems almost irrelevant to me. Even if PG&E did spend billions more on maintenance, and fix their inspection procedures, I don't see how this area would ever be safe, and so focusing on the power company as the source of the issue seems misguided to me.

Climate change shouldn't be used as a get out of jail card free card for catastrophic events like this.

PGE has a very long track record of neglectful behaviours. From leaking chromium into drinking water in socal, san mateo gas main explosion, and the electrical fires in northern California.

There is something very wrong with how PGE approaches it's infrastructure and public safety. It would happen regardless of climate change.

Assigning them unlimited liability for catastrophic wildfires leads to the unintended consequence of making it risky for them to run power at all during high fire danger conditions, so they turn off power in these areas.

They've been willfully negligent and reckless to the infrastructure they own to service their customers.

In this case we're not even talking about tree trimming, we have a 100 year old tower. It's obvious it will fail soon, there should be an internal maintenance program to replace/update it. There are no such programs, PGE operates in a way that there would never be such a program. PGE should be held liable for predictable out comes of its behaviours. (see all it's other catastrophic failures across the state)

A normal company would not exist after one PGE level negligent catastrophe. PGE is still around because it holds the state hostage to our energy infrastructure. This is not acceptable.

The key recurring theme is negligence. That's the reason PGE faces such high liabilities for the disasters it causes. This is not an act of God.

I believe it's totally possible to operate a for profit utility that's safe and reliable. PGE can't do that, now how can california untangle this mess.

Where I live in rural Missouri, we have "rural electric cooperatives." They are customer-owned utilities set up in the 1930s. From my experience and that of everyone I've talked to in the region, the coops are incredibly reliable, take safety and maintenance very seriously, and provide service at very reasonable rates.

It seems clear to me that for-profit business is the wrong model for an infrastructure monopoly like power delivery networks.

PGEs for profit status is kind of derailing tangent in these discussions. There are many successful ownership models for running a utility safely and reliably.

PGE has a long term organizational culture in leadership that creates this environment of negligent behaviours. Essentially all of PGEs problems are due to PGE -climate, environment, geography and company profit motives are secondary causes of these disasters at best.

They've been willfully negligent and reckless to the infrastructure they own to service their customers.

No doubt, but I'm just pointing out the reality -- make them responsible for any size fire set off by their equipment, and they will respond by turning off electricity during high fire danger periods. This isn't something that "might" happen, this is exactly what did happen.

So simply assigning more liability is not the answer.

That's fine then, have them turn it off during periods of high fire danger. Massive wildfires also interrupt electrical service.

Are you suggesting it's a good thing that they run their poorly maintained lines with a high chance of causing a fire during periods of high fire danger?

People want power, but they also don't want to die in a fire.

Slaps on the wrist have the unintended consequence of a town burning down and 85 people dying.

Yes, PGE did cause a fire through negligence. That's a problem. However, what is the appropriate penalty for this?

In my opinion, it is the average cost of a fire, most of which are small and don't cause much damage.

That this particular fire blew up into a big disaster was the result of many factors, only a few of which were actually in PGE's control.

That’s an argument you could make in any kind of liability lawsuit. It falls flat because the lawsuit isn’t worth filing in the average case, so nobody ends up being held to account for anything.

Example: a roller coaster has broken seat belts. Usually nothing bad will happen because physics keeps the rider in their seat. In one case, a rider falls to their death because they were leaning a particular way on a particular turn. Should the theme park not be punished because nobody was hurt in the average case? Or everyone who rode the roller coaster and wasn’t injured needs to sue for their piece of the pie (because the average damage is one death divided by the total number of riders)?

Whatever the appropriate monetary penalty is, it feels like jail time for executives and management within PG&E, who are ultimately responsible for the apparent culture of negligence within PG&E, is appropriate as well.

In terms of _average_ cost vs. actual costs, according to my non-lawyer reading of the Wikipedia article on the eggshell skull rule, it doesn't matter that these particular conditions made the fire significantly more costly than average. They have to answer for the damages from the fire they caused, not to the "average" or even "foreseeable" damages from such a fire.

They should be fined the cost of the fire multiplied by the increased risk of fire that they caused. So (cost of camp fire) * ((chance of fire happening due to unmaintained c-hook) / ((chance of fire happening from unmaintained c-hook)+(chance of fire happening from all other sources)

And if you read all the way to end you'll learn that the Camp fire would have been started anyways.

No need to assign culpability strictly to either PG&E or calfire for systematic wildfire mismanagement. We can blame them both! Also climate change.

Right, and it also outlines how records were not kept up-to-date. I would be interested to know what has happened since then. What type of records are being kept now? it seems likely that with today's technology we can use something to keep an eye on these things without sending people in as often too. Perhaps we can use cameras or drones.

There is a project from my former professor (?) and electrical company: use drones + cameras with specific filters to capture variation of temperature, wear and debris in towers.

PG&E did request to be able to clear brush up to 15 feet away from the power lines which I believe Gov. Newsom granted a CEQA exemption to them to do[1]. Prior to that, they were only allowed to clear four feet.[2] That doesn't change the broken equipment but some of the blame can be placed on environmental regulations that cause this. What I am not sure of is whether environmental regulatory approval decreases funding and/or increases costs/time of repairing power lines. The power line upgrades do have to be reviewed and approved by environmental regulators. Here is an example[3].

[1]: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/california-tests-...

[2]: https://www.sierraclub.org/california/cnrcc/pge-clearcuts-po...

[3]: https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/Environment/Info/mha/cabrillosantayn...

You don’t have to speculate about trees causing fires in the area: the thread eventually mentions a second fire, Camp B, caused by a tree falling on a line. It was subsumed by the first Camp fire. It may have caused just as much trouble if it was the only fire.

I don't mean to come over as arrogant, snotty or something here, but speaking of proper engineering and maintenance in the context of high-voltage transmission lines in the USA instantly makes one burst out in laughter when comparing that to how they are built in Germany.

While we had some fuck-ups too, we have way larger pyhsical safety margins, as in more space between the wires, more space between the wires and ground, more space between wires and vegetation (which is cut back when growing into that space), while usually we don't even have weather which makes it dry like tinder.

Honestly, this all looks like toys to us. Inconceivable.

Pge has a history of diverting maintenance to profits. That has been proven.

Communities and forests in CA do not keep up adequate maintenance, that is taken as fact.

The super dry conditions coupled with wind exacerbate any fires that pop up.

We’ve had fires due to pge, gun shots (detwieller), a flat on a trailer causing sparks over 5 miles. Yet, the fires would not have been as severe if conditions on the forest floor were not so dire.

Plumas National Forest is pretty clean compared to many - yet winds kicked up on the Bear fire and Berry Falls was torched and Oroville threatened.

Santa Cruz mountains, many homes saved either had defensible space or neighbors nearby with such that stayed up and helped out.

Not sure I have a point, just some facts.

It's instructive to consider the alternative. Many US towns expand in a dendritic pattern by branching cul-de-sacs off of interconnecting roads. By contrast pre-Westphalian cities were always built within convex hulls for defensive purposes. These shapes were imitated by early grid-planned US towns built by capitalist pioneers, but after the introduction of the automobile those towns were soon surrounded by irregular additions.

The convex hull is clearly superior in a fire-prone forest, because it permits the introduction of a fire-break. However, it requires us to, from a top-down perspective, decide that we will build a new entire town. We are reluctant to commit to building towns in forests, even though we are equally reluctant to ban people from living in forests.

In this situation we have the worst of both worlds: ad-hoc development is subsidized by the "surplus value lying around" when the government pays to build a road/powerlines/etc between two places, but it ultimately depletes that resource and creates new demands which must be fulfilled by the government.

This is a very interesting analysis. Thanks for providing it.

..."excusable" cause (like a tree falling on a line...

No that would not be excusable for an American power company. Trees are trimmed and felled on a regular basis wherever they threaten power lines. Except, somehow, in California? That would be surprising.

I suppose you think that nuclear power plants should be operated under the same "run to failure" maintenance policy?

No, but if the city nearby insisted on building too close than people suffering from radiation (I'm just inventing a story here) is not just my fault.

Yes, they have blame. Yes, they diverted profits from maintenance. Yes, they could have made less money and done more maintenance and (slightly?) reduced the likelihood of a fire. The issue is that the incentives are not aligned.

They are also regulated and have to ask for permission to raise rates. This is the double sided coin of regulated utilities. There should be mandatory annual rate hikes and those should be mandated for maintenance and safety. It is verified and if not done, the utility pays a fine of 2x the rate hike. These systems are clearly aging and that needs to be built into the legislation. What happens if PG&E just goes bankrupt? People still need power. The infrastructure is still in shambles. The legislation must have a path to sustainability. This feels very similar to how the legislature has crippled the Post Office.

Imagine an alleged arsonist going to court, and his defense was "not guilty your honor, I didn't put all that fuel in one place, I just flicked a tiny lighter!"

This is a poor analogy. Besides the distinction that arson is intentional rather than negligent, arsonists burn things that would not have burned otherwise. While PG&E's negligence sparked the fire, the brush in the area would have burned at some point in the near future regardless of their actions. The Twitter thread mentions the fire that started in the area around the same time because a tree fell, or some other inciting event could have happened. While PG&E should be held accountable for failing to uphold legal standards of inspection, the Camp Fire or a similar one was likely even without negligence, so to compare PG&E to arsonists is misleading.

Negligent vs intentional is orthogonal to responsible. You could be responsible but just negligent, like an idiot lighting up a cigar at a gas station. You could intentionally light a fire but not responsible, such as if someone tricked you into doing it or you were poisoned with hallucinogenic drugs, or just plain crazy.

None of these corner-cases do anything for your arsonist analogy. Whatever else one thinks of the utility, it is not plausible that either it or its employees intended to start a fire.

Talk about missing the point ...

Your ellipses aren't making any case for that proposition...

Surely seeing an organisation being so careless in its maintenance of an extremely dangerous asset is criminal, regardless of whether or not a fire was started. “I own giant death cables in the sky but skimp on their upkeep costs” is already worth punishing or holding someone accountable for.

> If this failure hadn't happened, and the same fire had happened a year later due to an "excusable" cause (like a tree falling on a line, or someone's house catching on fire)

Or, say, a massive lightning storm such as the ones that sparked many of the wildfires this year.

Take the fire out of the picture and PG&E have total responsibility for maintaining this infrastructure and keeping it safe. They can't blame it on the geography of the area.

Put the fire back in and, yes, they still have significant responsibility. The same way that someone setting off a firework or lighting up a barbecue in the brush or holding a gender reveal party is held responsible. They don't get off easier because they're a big business and it's tough for them. Their CEO and shareholders can live with a smaller return to properly take care of their equipment.

It has nothing to do with stopping all fires, or making them responsible for reducing them. It's holding them to account for causing one.

This is a failing of engineering reliable systems:

A part is tested to a point of failure, based on the quality parameters you specify. I'd put safety pretty high on a 115,000V line. Choose your sigma level based on your goals. I'd wager 97 years is out of the ballpark of "Yes, this might fail". And to save on cost, don't come back every year "OK, it's still OK." Replace it - it saves cost (and in this case, potentially lives).

So yes, I'd assign them blame. Be it an engineering part, an asphalt road, a power pylon.

There will be outliers, but this was an outlier of systematic negligence, with no (recorded) documentation prior to the year 2000.

Scheduled replacement saves costs in the long term, if bottom dollar is the aim.

iF iT AiNt BrOkE dOnT fIx It

Clearly it broke. Was fixed, sort of but not actually, and failed.

Observe, test, measure, analyse, mitigate (did I create a new acronym to add to the vast QC vocabulary, OTMAM?). Scheduled replacement! Mitigate problems before they cause knock-on effects that shutdown a production line or endanger lives and livelihoods.

(I do get the sarcasm in your reply, BTW.)

> With proper engineering

This tower looks weird.

Overhead three-phase transmission is super common in the EU and I've never seen anything like this "transposition tower" that swaps the wires around in the air and I don't really see why it would make much sense to do so mid-line. Wouldn't it be easier to swap the wires around at the start or end of a line, or inside a substation?

Also, as far as I can tell (from sometimes photographing these things with telephotos), the insulators seem to generally be bolted to the mast instead of being hooked in, so this entire failure mode of hooks wearing out (or dislodging?) doesn't exist. (Okay, now you have to worry about changing loads on bolts, fair enough).

Swapping the wires around at the start or end of the line doesn't swap them frequently enough. It's actually quite like a twisted pair in an ethernet cable: you swap the order frequently to average out the different position-dependent electrical characteristics to get a uniform characteristic.

The EU probably does that less frequently simply due to higher density, and thus fewer long stretches of transmission line. I've personally seen a transposition tower in the EU on a line running across a mountain, so they do exist.


TIL. Germans of course have their Verdrillschemata to place Verdrillmasten properly, but it seems they're quite rare. There's a Wikipedia article with an example transmission line, but it notes that all Verdrillmasten have been removed from that line over time.

TIL too! The German wikipedia articles are quite detailed: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verdrillmast https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verdrillschema

I'd be interested to know if the twists have been removed from the lines. It might be the case that they've replaced the special twisting masts with other ways of twisting, eg taking the lines into a substation and re-orienting them on the way back out. If they've added a lot of substations as the land gets developed more, that may be the case.

Also, I'm sure twisted masts are a bit more expensive. So this might just be a gradual process of saving money as equipment gets replaced rather than any specific engineering goal. There's many other things that unbalance lines, and twisting masts may not make enough of a difference compared to other issues.

The lines themselves basically do not have twists anymore, it only happens at the special power poles (Verdrillmasten) and only statically (so no moving parts like in PGE/CA). They're more modern and safer but more expensive when you need to change infrastructure resulting in a different load on the 3-phase, so you have to rewire those towers.

The upside is that rewiring them is somewhat safe and easy since you don't have to do it over the entire length between towers, only a few dozens meters on a single tower.

edit: quite a few places also use single-level masts, that don't have this issue at all.

Wait, that doesn't sound right. It's a bit hard to tell with Google translate. But from what I see on the wikipedia article (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verdrillmast) Germany is doing exactly the same thing as is done in the US - the US does not twist lines in midair. Only at poles.

What do you mean by "moving parts"? The US lines don't have any parts that move more than slightly, which EU lines do as well (they have too: the lines themselves expand and contract, and move in the wind, so the insulators have to have flexibility).

You don't see those hooks things in Europe because I doubt we have any high voltage lines that old left. I suspect this one survived that long because of the much drier California climate.

Honestly for what this cost in human loss of life and financial loss it would have made sense to clean the ground underneath the towers or perhaps install fire suppressor systems the entire length of the line. A few sprinklers at the bottom of each tower and a single water main to supply them can't possibly cost the same $16 billion that a wildfire costs. Even if you put a $100 Raspberry Pi with a temperature sensor, smoke sensor, and computer vision at the bottom of each tower to detect fires. 85 people would be alive right now.

But no. They won't even replace a $12 hook.

My thoughts exactly, PG&E are to blame and should be punished but it seems like someone forgot to ask the 5 why's- why did the fire spread so fast ? why didn't people got a warning in time ?

CalFire’s budget is lower than it was in 1999 in inflation adjusted dollars. 8/10 CalFire workers are prison laborers. How convenient for the CA government to have cLiMatE chAnGe to blame.

I do remember reading that there was a lack of maintenance by PG&E but as you say it is a systemic governance failure and to single out one point of failure is scapegoating.

Here in Sonoma County [Tubbs fire, kincade fire, LNU Lightning fires] PG&E has had 2-3 contracted helicopters out pretty much every day doing line maintenance/checking.

I watch flightaware pretty constantly, so it's easy to see their contracted helicopters up in the area.

Point being, they are trying -- I think people also fail to understand just how huge and rural Northern CA is.

3 x brand new ROBINSON R-44 ~$1.5mil. 3x pilot salary, lets be generous ~$400K. $220/hour operating cost includes insurance and amortized overhaul, flying 5 hours a day = ~1200 hours per year, 3x $250K.

$2.7 million all in all. they make >$500mil a year, they can afford to try harder.

At some point there's going to be a lightning or something and the fire will happen anyway.

Like right now? The feather river canyon near Paradise is on fire as we speak from a lighting induced fire that has caused fatalities. The Camp fire burn out area is actual one of the boarders of the North Complex fire.

> this area will likely never be safe without significant policy changes

What policy changes would those be? I've never lived near there so I don't have a clue.

> the forest is so dry and overgrown that pretty much ...

... it is impossible to maintain records of WTF they are doing.

> PG&E does ultimately have some responsibility […]

Don't stop there; remember they're regulated:

> California’s public utilities commission prioritized rates, green power; wildfires exposed shortcomings

* https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-caused-over-400-fires-in-2...

* https://archive.is/czAB3 (paywall)

> A state lawmaker on Wednesday demanded an extensive review of the California Public Utilities Commission to determine whether regulators’ lax oversight enabled neglect at Pacific Gas & Electric that triggered catastrophic wildfires, a messy bankruptcy and exasperating blackouts.

* https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/01/16/california-lawmaker-d...

So what you're saying is we need more regulations to cover these kinds of cases? Aren't you "regulations" people usually against regulations? Like, normally wouldn't I be arguing against someone screaming about how the free market can take care of these things and that the free market knows better than the government?

Or, once again, is it just an amazing coincidence that people have suddenly completely flipped their stance because it happened in California?

> So what you're saying is we need more regulations to cover these kinds of cases?

Please quote back to me where in my post I say "more regulation".

> Aren't you "regulations" people usually against regulations?

??? Who is the "you" that is being referenced?

Perhaps you are projecting onto me positions that I have not stated and may not actually hold. I have not stated whether more free market is good/better or bad/worse, or whether more regulations would be better or worse.

I'm simply pointing out that, in addition to PG&E, there may be other parties that may share responsibility in the chain of events that led to the situation at hand.

PG&E operates in a regulatory context: is it worth examining if that context contributed to the current situation that California is in? Are the regulations a problem? Or how they are interpreted or applied? Are more needed, or less? Perhaps they need to be streamlined (proscriptive versus descriptive)? I have no answers to these questions.

See also: the FAA and Boeing (737 MAX).

Interesting. I'm kinda sympathetic to PG&E on this though. These big lines don't have much under them, inspection is by helicopter, and the lines cannot be shut down. I would not be surprised if "fix it when it breaks" is a nationwide phenomenon for high tension lines.

What makes it bad is how fire-prone California is. I'm of the opinion that humans should not be living in areas that burn regularly. And in PG&E's defense I doubt anyone was living near the lines when they were built 100 years ago.

If forest fire was an acceptable outcome of line failure 100 years ago when the lines were built, is it PG&E's fault that tons of people moved into this fire prone area? In my mind the cities nearby should have paid them to make the lines safer. To me this is like the people that move near a concert hall then complain that it's loud. Or move to a floodplain and complain when it floods...

It seems like it's been known that these lines were a fire risk for a very long time, and cities should have paid to make them safer before zoning so much land for residential. I assume, but cannot prove, that PG&E probably enumerated the risks when the land was sold or rezoned but their concerns were ignored. Having done a study on the wear of the hooks themselves, it seems unlikely they would not have notified communities nearby of the risk. My prediction is that they start to point fingers at the government, but people continue to sue the power company because sueing the government is hard.

> and the lines cannot be shut down.

Of course they can. A failure is an unplanned shutdown, and I doubt that leads to better outcomes than a planned shutdown. Also this thread demonstrates that PG&E replaced _other_ parts of the same tower.

> I'm of the opinion that humans should not be living in areas that burn regularly.

I'm of the opinion that climate change makes this a moving target, and this is simply one of the obvious repercussions.

> is it PG&E's fault that tons of people moved into this fire prone area?

No, it's their fault that even though they made $550 million in profits in 2018, and made other improvements to these towers, they still failed to keep them in proper repair. Also, it's not always "fire-prone." California experienced a bit of drought in 2018.

> and cities should have paid to make them safer

Shouldn't the company making $550 million in profits pay to make them safer?

If California doesn't like PG&E making $550M profit, and would like PG&E spend more on maintenance, it should set lower profit target, and allow PG&E spend more money on maintenance. PG&E operates based on decisions of California Public Utilities Commission, which decides, among other things, how much money PG&E is allowed to make, and how much it is allowed to spend on maintenance. Here's what it looks like: https://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/PublishedDocs/Published/G000/M102/K...

PG&E would love to spend more money on maintenance. It doesn't cut into their profits, because their expenses and profits are set by state government commission anyway. Of course, the government commission has some incentive to keep the rate low, to make citizens happy, which makes it limit how much money PG&E can make and spend.

The above is not meant to imply that if PG&E worked like any normal company, they'd maintain their shit better -- I have no idea if they would. However, in the current regime, where CPUC exercises so much control over what PG&E does and how much money it makes and spends, the blame cannot be solely placed on PG&E side.

Why is it people will argue that there should be fewer regulations to allow companies more freedom to operate but when those companies, unsurprisingly, put money ahead of safety, it’s then the government’s fault for not regulating those companies?

At some point companies need to take responsibility and be held accountable for their (in)actions. I know this is an unpopular opinion for HN, given its venture funding roots, but companies shouldn’t be given a free pass every time they screw up due to placing greed above all else.

I don’t think you understood my comment. PG&E is as regulated as you can possibly get without literally being part of government. When PG&E wants to spend $100M on maintenance, it has to ask government for permission, and CPUC needs to approve this expense.

My point here is not to argue that with less regulation, PG&E would do better job when it comes to maintenance — I don’t know if it would. However, considering how deeply regulated it actually is, and how much the regulator controls everything it does, some blame must also be placed on the regulator’s side.

> When PG&E wants to spend $100M on maintenance, it has to ask government for permission, and CPUC needs to approve this expense.

...and did they ask? It's their job to ask. You can't blame the oversight organization's interference if it didn't interfere.

If you have to ask a government committee every time you go to washroom, you will notice a significant drop in your washroom visits.

if people die when I stop going to the washroom, I am willing to evaluate the idea that I may have some culpability in deciding to not do that

Getting approval once per campaign, or maybe every few months, is pretty different from petty micromanagment.

There's definitely an observable issue with Californian electricity supplies being significantly worse than in other parts of the world, which have more liberalised transmission operator firms.

Is it more liberalised in other parts of the world though? That’s not usually the case for Europe and China (the next two biggest global economies). Perhaps it might be true specifically with regards to electricity supply but I would be very surprised if that were the case knowing how the U.K. likes to regulate similar services which I have directly been employed by.

> PG&E would love to spend more money on maintenance

Yeah, their series of felony convictions for violating the law regarding maintenance, and obstructing investigations into those failures, tells a very different story.

IMO, this is the most important comment here (so far) in understanding the investment & maintenance decision making and constaints of PG&E.

From the linked CPUC Decision Making in the above comment, there are multiple examples where PG&E have advocated for increased spending for safety purposes, but organisations such as the Division of Ratepayer Advocates and The Utility Reform Network were pushing back. Ultimately, however, it is the CPUC that weighs the arguments of the different parties and determines allowable spending.

> PG&E operates based on decisions of California Public Utilities Commission...

As clarification, your statement makes it sound like CPUC makes unilateral decisions about what PG&E can or cannot do when, in fact, CPUC makes those decisions based on requests made by PG&E. While CPUC does have a certain level of decision making power, a lot of their decisions are made based on what PG&E says is the right/necessary thing to do.

> If California doesn't like PG&E making ... profit.. it should set lower profit target, and allow PG&E spend more money on maintenance

Who makes decisions at the CPUC? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is circular logic.

Political appointees who have enormous incentives to keep electricity prices as low as possible.

And yet California has one of the highest electricity costs in the country. Things definitely don’t add up.

I wish this attitude towards planned and unplanned shutdowns was more common.

I'm not an infrastructure professional, I'm in automation and manufacturing, but all too often I come across equipment that must never be shut down and must be functional 100% of the time, but which has been run long past its service life. Windows 98 or XP computers on their 9th resurrection due to parts from eBay, castings full of helicoils, electrical cabinets with wires strung across like cobwebs... If the business was successful before the machine was built, downtime now costs tens of thousands of dollars per hour, and the whole machine cost 500,000 dollars 100,000 hours ago, maybe someone should start thinking about building a replacement (or, better, a pair of replacements) and phasing this one out?

I know the front office likes to write off machine depreciation as a tax deduction. With a 10 year useful life on a $500k machine, you get $50k in tax deductions. In the 11th year, you get no tax deduction, but the machine is still making money.

I feel strongly that there ought to be some kind of financial penalty for operating a machine that's depreciated beyond its claimed useful life - not a direct tax penalty, but some kind of non-cash-expense liability that subtracts from the big positive number on the front page of the quarterly financials which the CEO uses to claim they deserve a bonus.

PG&E's more regulated than just painting them as a for-profit business with $550M in the black would suggest. They have maintenance and capital expenditures that they need to make. But those regulated books didn't show the single-point-of-failure risks and long-past-useful-life liabilities, and they should!

Incentivising companies to throw away equipment that still works sounds like a terrible environmental policy

That depends on how you look at it. In the case of this thread, is it better for the environment that PGE continues using 100 year old electricity towers and saves the resources (metals, fuel, labor) necessary to replace them? Or is it better that such massive fires are reduced in frequency?

I think it's hard to take the example of a poorly maintained electric tower in the middle of a poorly managed forest and extend that to all electronics a company uses. The comment I was replying to talks about windows computers, castings, and standard electrical panels.

>Of course they can. A failure is an unplanned shutdown

A pedantically accurate retort, but ignores the real point.

Shutting down these lines for "inspection" is not feasible. These lines are the backbone of a grid that millions of people and services rely on 24/7/365, and there is zero redundancy. They are responsible for delivering power to hospitals, traffic lights, schools, airports, grocery stores, homes, businesses, and the list goes on.

Telling people "We need to turn off your power for a couple days every couple months for inspections" is going to create a lot of backlash, no matter how good the reason.

Also, the lines in question aren't like closing a two lane road in a small neighborhood for a couple hours where a few annoyed people can take alternate routes. It's more like shutting down all the freeways in a major city for a day just so that the DOT can finally get some street sweeping done. Good luck not starting a riot.

The problem is, these systems are old, too many people rely on them, and there is no redundancy.

If we want to take a step towards fixing the problem, the best start is to create redundancy for power supply to consumers, imo. Preferably more localized power generation via wind/solar/etc with some localized power storage.

Also, their profit margin for one year is not a fair argument towards them being at fault. Economics of public companies are about a lot more than "We made extra money, so we should have just spent it on making our product better". If shareholders don't make money in a company, they pull their investments. You pull enough investments in PG&E, that means they have to cut costs. Meaning, less money for inspections and improvements to the grid.

Economics at scale is not a black-and-white, napkin math, solvable problem.

> Telling people "We need to turn off your power for a couple days every couple months for inspections" is going to create a lot of backlash, no matter how good the reason.

They were happy to tell people "We need to turn off your power for a couple of days because of wind." Granted, in this particular case, they weren't talking about the 115kV line that ultimately caused the fire.

To me, this just further highlights their "run it till it breaks" philosophy. This becomes a little more obvious when you read their plans for fixing this mess, and it involves a dual-circuit transmissions system. So, you can literally shut half of it down without completely stopping power.

It's also not impossible to serve one neighborhood with two power lines, in fact it's quite common.

> Also, the lines in question aren't like closing a two lane road in a small neighborhood

It is a single 115kV line. That's exactly like what it is. For the rest of the state your analogy falls apart because there is a significant amount of redundancy and additional capacity that can be used to route power. For example, lookup "Path 46" and the "Pacific DC Intertie." Which is interesting in it's own right because it can be run in two different modes, one for nearly double the power capacity in certain conditions.

> The problem is, these systems are old, too many people rely on them, and there is no redundancy.

The California regulator has been asleep at the switch here, and they do share some culpability, but again.. it's not impossible to design around this constraint. You're going to pay twice as much for aluminum and nearly twice as much for everything else, but it's not impossible to solve. Just no one wanted to and no one was going to make them.

> Also, their profit margin for one year is not a fair argument towards them being at fault.

They are a state granted monopoly. I think it's entirely fair.

> Economics at scale is not a black-and-white, napkin math, solvable problem.

Sure, but you can start on the napkin and see if you're even in the ballpark. I think if you put even $100 million down on a napkin, you'd be surprised at what can fit in your ballpark.

> Telling people "We need to turn off your power for a couple days every couple months for inspections" is going to create a lot of backlash, no matter how good the reason.

Maybe not every couple of mounts, but they could probably get away with doing them more frequently than a century... Also, you can do visual inspection even without having to shut down power.

The lines could have been inspected without shutting them down.

No, stronger than that. The problems with these lines were noticed without shutting them down, at least by someone, but it didn't get acted on.

We don't even know if replacing these parts would have required shutdowns, but it would have been easy to justify shutdowns for such visible problems.

This is PG&E in California we are talking about? The one that already has rolling blackouts? California is just a failed state - an embarrassment for an economy so large it rivals most countries.

That's what happens when there's no viable opposition party.

The Republicans have a little more blame for the deregulation driven blackouts of 2000.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pete_Wilson Wilson was the driving force behind the 1996 legislation that deregulated the state's energy market, which was the first energy utilities deregulation in the U.S. and aggressively pushed by companies such as Enron.[28]

How is shutting these lines down not feasible when PG&E regularly does it as part of their "public safety power shutdowns"

There is no defense for PG&E for the Camp Fire. This is an organization that is notorious for under-maintaining its assets. Its state of repair is so shoddy that it regularly turns off power for many days at a time ("public safety power shutoffs") to huge swathes of its service area. No other comparable utility does this - not San Diego Gas and Electric, not the Victoria Electricity Cooperative (Australian utility), no one, because they have entered the 21st century and don't need to resort to crude hacks like shutting off all power to prevent fires.

The proof is in the thread. Barely 10 years ago, PG&E pleaded guilty to another felony, when its under-maintained gas pipeline in San Bruno exploded, killed 8 people, and leveled a neighborhood. That utility has a cultural problem going to the very top that prioritizes profit over safety, and I sincerely hope it emerges from bankruptcy reformed.

PGE also was responsible for contaminating the ground water in Hinkley California with millions of gallons of chromium in the the 1960s and then covering it up for 20 years.

There is something seriously wrong with PGE and it's attitude towards it's infrastructure and public safety.

Not sure how important it is to bring up something from 60 years ago. All the workers from that time are likely dead.

But the culture isn't.

> not the Victoria Electricity Cooperative (Australian utility),

The state next to Victoria does, and did recently.


None of this information is relevant to whether PG&E has a defense for the Camp Fire.

Overruled, statement goes to motive and habit.

PG&E pled guilty to the charges brought against them, in part because there was clear evidence of their leadership intentionally neglecting their infrastructure for decades until it fell into such disrepair as to start a forest fire. They chose to remain quiet about their neglect until it became impossible to do so, sealing their fate. If they had demonstrated a history of decades of campaigning to get the problem solved, rather than silently neglecting it, they might not have been found guilty at all.

(This is from memory, so if I got any specifics wrong, see replies for corrections.)

>and the lines cannot be shut down

yes, they can.

>I doubt anyone was living near the lines when they were built 100 years ago.

Paradise, CA was on a railroad map ca 1900:


> I'm of the opinion that humans should not be living in areas that burn regularly.

Along similar lines of thinking, humans should not be living in areas that flood regularly, or that have earthquakes regularly, or that have hurricanes regularly, or that have tornadoes regularly, or that have insufficient water, or that have excessive heat or cold regularly, or that have high rates of animal-transmitted disease.

This doesn't leave many places for people to live.

It actually leaves quite a lot of places to live.

Yes an asteroid could hit anywhere but the notion that suburban sprawl out into every corner of the wilderness is justified by that is ludicrous.

It would be a really fun map though, to determine where is "safest" based on an individuals risk profile.

Insurance rates map https://howmuch.net/articles/homeowners-insurance-rates-2020

But there’s got to be a higher resolution one out there.

These exist, somewhere. Data centers are very interested in disaster risk since they don't have many other constraints

It does. The west coast is fire and earthquake prone. The east, hurricanes. There's a giant swath of land in "flyover country", the Midwest, that doesn't have any particular disaster risk.

But people like living near the oceans, mountains, and where weather is nice. That should be okay, but the government shouldn't be throwing money at them. Let them know the area is dangerous, and if they want to live there, they're on their own.

I get miffed when we bail these people out with federal funds for disaster relief. They should be required to have private insurance, with insurance free to set rates based on risk. If it's too expensive to get insured, don't live there

It feels like a great use case for a drone, you could get closer, the video can be taken by non-inspectors and then reviewed later/stored.

That's how it's done now.[1] But seeing wear on a hook is tough even with high resolution photos, because the wear is between hook and eye and doesn't show clearly until the setup is disassembled.

[1] https://youtu.be/7-JTqwUyD5o

Did you look at the photos of the hook, it should be visible to a proper inspection. That marketing video of inspections is either picked for nice panning shots, or is simply inadequate operation to make it look like they can inspect faster than they should to be effective.

Where a park can't be verified, its replaced regularly.

Replacing them every 30 years won't bancrupt anyone.

Can't you just infer it by how much of the original eye is unoccupied?

In the UK helicopters are used as drones simply aren’t fast enough to image an entire transmission line in a reasonable amount of time.

However unlike PG&E we take high resolution photographs of every major component on a transmission tower, and manually inspect and classify every image take. Images of this type would have identified this fault, at least once during inspections taken during the last couple of decades.

Source: Worked for a company that did these inspections.

There is plenty of blame to spread around.

Regulations should require sufficient redundancy for scheduled outages on individual lines for regularly scheduled service during non-critical times.

Communities should not be allowed to form, and should be actively wound down if they are within dangerous areas with seasonal problems. Fires, Floods, Extreme doubts, unsustainable water table use, etc. This should _begin_ at a federal level with a re-location act, and should involve planning and support at every stage of government to proceed in an orderly way for society.

Edit: Also, of course, the company is still at fault, I forgot to point that out while going over other aspects of the systemic failure of society (people and organizations of people) as a whole.

> Communities should not be allowed to form, and should be actively wound down if they are within dangerous areas with seasonal problems.

But when we abandon most of the West (earthquake, fire, drought), midwest (flooding, tornados, east and particularly gulf coast (hurricanes), there's a whole lot of economic output lost from working land (farming, mineral extraction, etc.) that won't be replaceable when you crowd the remaining population into whatever safe bubble you have left.

The reason people live in dangerous areas is because they are often inherently economically productive, and in fact many of the things that make land suitable to human habitation are associated with periodic risk (freshwater supply and flood risk tend to go together, for instance.)

California mountain towns are not economically productive. I doubt they could even exist without the rest of the states taxes supporting their infrastructure.

Yes, this happened in an isolated mountain town. Let's set that aside for a moment.

PGE demonstrates neglectful behaviours towards all of its infrastructure. It has transmission lines everywhere and has the same general attitude to maintenance and safety. Ask the people of San Mateo how safe they feel with PGEs gas lines. There are serious long term problems inside PGE and it's doubtful they are going to change.

PGE presents a serious risk to Californians everywhere.

What is the process for ‘winding down’ a community?

Is the local government dissolved, so the county or state pays for this?

Any info is appreciated, I am very curious of how this works in practice.

I mean, you have to be more careful when you’re in a more dangerous area. If you live on a remote farm you can hit golf balls from your back porch. If you live in a suburb, not so much. Is this unfair?

The big change is not that somehow PG&E is going to inspect every hook on every tower. It’s not like they can just climb the tower and check it out, as you say they inspect with helicopters and cameras. Probably many of these towers don’t have a clear means to even access them with heavy equipment.

Instead, the approach is they will simply shut off the power during these high risk days.

Interesting that they actually warned that they could shut off power in the days leading up to the fire, but never actually did. To me, those are the meetings to zero in on when it comes time to lay the blame. I wonder, what was the calculus to cutting power (which itself can have health & safety impacts to the populace) and how much of it was political?

PG&E has 100,000 miles of transmission lines, so perhaps about a million of these towers. To put that in perspective, historically they spend billions of dollars a year on maintenance and upgrade on the order of 100-200 miles of transmission lines per year.

Or, you could be responsible and say 'hey, we have no documentation for this power line and it's 90 years old. Our knowledge of materials science say this should have worn out. Let's be proactive and replace things'.

You don't need to physically inspect every item to be safe, here. You rely on precaution, standard shelf life, and operational procedures.

If that's difficult, so be it. That's the price people pay for choosing to live in the sticks. This should all be accounted for.

You think that hospitals inspect every item every 3 months? Hell no. A lot of things have lifecycles and it's just replaced because that's the tolerance, and it's safer in the long run. PG&E should be the same.

The average age of a PG&E tower is 68 years old.

PGEs own linemen were concerned about wear on these towers. They sent samples from the field to labs for metallurgical analysis. PGEs own scientists estimated that the components would wear out in 100 years.

PGE took this information and did nothing.


This is not how you maintain critical infrastructure. This is embracing failure and simply not caring about the consequences.

So they staff and run a metallurgical lab in house to which linemen can send samples for analysis, and then management simply throws away the reports?

Of I personally, knowingly caused this much damage throug negligence, i'd be in jail forever.

To be fair, first you would have build out a several hundred billion dollar state wide electrical grid, while allowing it to degrade in various ways over approximately a century.

I’m not sure a single person at any one time has ever knowingly caused this much damage through negligence. I mean ever in human history. Failures this large due to negligence tend to be systemic. But it would be a very interesting to hear an example.

The closest I can think of could be some of the famous bridge design failures, where people died, and people did go to jail, but not forever.

I'm sure what your point is. The worse the situation, the greater the responsibility. PG&E does not live up to the responsibility it should carry. If the towers are on average 68 years old that means they are supposed to put even more effort into maintenance than they already do.

So they better start maintaining them at a rate higher than 100-200 miles per year. They need to do 1000 miles per year to keep up with 100,000 miles of lines that have a 100 year life expectancy.

They’ve promised to spend $40 billion over the next five years on the grid, ~$8 billion of which is wildfire risk mitigation. It’s hard to say that will be in any way “sufficient”.

Because ensuring safety of the lines during very high risk days is impossible, a big part of the strategy was to add local generation redundancy so that they can switch off the transmission lines during high risk events but still keep the power on. These redundant stations would have to be natural-gas plants though, and CA has carbon-free mandates that prohibit them, so they have been prevented from implementing this strategy.

Frankly, it’s not clear that demand for this unreliable grid electricity can support the growth of the ratebase (the property being maintained).

At some point the ROI on switching to solar and batteries is net positive in the first month (based on financing the cost at a reasonable rate), and I’m not sure that point is much higher than $0.50/kWh for a household using 600kWh+ per month.

The more people that just opt-out of a grid connection entirely, the fewer people the ratebase is divided across, the higher rates must be set for those that remain.

Luckily the lithium-ion supply is fairly limited right now, but over the next 10-20 years that won’t remain the case.

PG&E currently has about $40 billion of debt, and recently issued $5 billion of debt at a B1 rating (junk). These issues also drive up their borrowing costs, which further shows up in the rates.

This is a good overview of the challenges they face;


I predict that in 10-15 years we could hear calls to outlaw or prohibitively tax any new battery/solar systems that take new houses in CA off-grid, because the grid will be in “solar death spiral”.

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