The judge overseeing PG&E's corporate criminal probation said Tuesday that he was considering imposing more strict guidance over how often the utility preemptively shuts off power in nine Northern California counties during high-wind events.
PG&E has conducted public-safety power shutoffs (PSPS) on multiple occasions in the past two years, ostensibly showing greater caution when high winds occur during the height of fire season. This all came after the disastrous fire seasons of 2017 and 2018 in which thousands of homes were destroyed and dozens of people killed in the North Bay and in Paradise due to power lines that sparked fires in high-wind conditions.
PG&E had said in 2020 that it would be more targeted in its PSPS events, but there were nonetheless power shutoffs on multple occasions, and several wildfires that may have been caused by downed power lines or other equipment that was not shutoff. On Monday, a new report revealed that the Zogg Fire in Shasta County last September was sparked by a tree that fell into a PG&E power line — and in an online hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup cited that report and asked why PG&E hadn't cut that tree down after its removal had already been recommended two years earlier.
"My view is quite clear: We should save lives," Alsup said, per the Associated Press. “We don’t have the luxury to wait around. I am not open to the idea that we would kick the can down the road and study the problem to death."
The proposal would potentially triple the number of PSPS events in six counties north of the Bay Area: Trinity, Placer, Shasta, Tehama, Madera and Mendocino. And the number of outages would be double in three other counties: Butte, Nevada and El Dorado. It's unclear if Alsup also plans to impose anything similar with regard to Bay Area counties where PG&E has also been found liable for fires, but where population densities are higher and the impacts are greater when the power goes off.
An attorney for the California Public Utilities Commission argued against the increased number of prescribed shutoffs, citing the impacts on residents.
Alsup suggested that state regulators were partly to blame for allowing the situation with PG&E and its power lines to get to this point.
"It’s a Hobson’s choice, it’s a terrible choice that California is faced with," Alsup said, per the AP. "There is no really good answer to it. It’s just, which is the lesser of two tremendous evils."
Photo: Max Lederer