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By Dale Kasler | Sacramento Bee
The state auditor blasted the regulators who oversee wildfire safety at California’s major electric utilities Thursday, saying they signed off on safety plans that had significant flaws.
Michael Tilden, the acting state auditor, said the California Public Utilities Commission and the recently formed Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety haven’t gone far enough in demanding safety reforms from PG&E Corp. and the other two big utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
In particular, Tilden criticized the Energy Infrastructure Safety agency for approving the three utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans even though their plans contained “Class A deficiencies — the most serious type of deficiency.” Among other things, the plans failed to show that the utilities’ safety projects were “targeting the highest-risk portions of the electrical grid,” the audit said.
Tilden’s report said the oversight deficiencies leave California in danger — both from big wildfires as well as the big blackouts the utilities sometimes impose in an effort to tamp down risks. Between them, the state’s largest utilities operate “nearly 40,000 miles of bare power lines in areas where there is a greater risk of wildfire,” the report said. The companies completed “hardening projects” in 2020 on just 1,540 of those lines.
The audit was particularly critical of the state’s oversight of PG&E — the company that’s been found responsible for many of California’s deadliest and most disastrous fires in recent years. The Energy Safety agency, for instance, approved PG&E’s wildfire plan for 2021 even though the utility didn’t demonstrate that it was replacing power lines and making other “system hardening” efforts where they’re needed most.
The report follows two of the worst wildfire seasons in California history, as measured by total acreage burned — and comes as the drought-stricken state prepares for what is likely to be a third straight difficult fire year.
Tilden’s report comes in the wake of a recent Sacramento Bee story investigating PG&E’s ongoing wildfire problems — and the struggles by state agencies to hold California’s largest utility accountable.
Among other things, The Bee found the Energy Infrastructure Safety agency approved PG&E’s wildfire mitigation plan for 2021 literally weeks after the utility reported that its electrical equipment probably caused the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, which wound up burning nearly 1 million acres last fall. Cal Fire later confirmed that PG&E was responsible for the fire, and law enforcement agencies are investigating whether the utility should be prosecuted.
Plans critical to California wildfire safety
The annual wildfire mitigation plans are considered a crucial piece of the state’s efforts to curb mega-fires. The big rate-regulated utilities are required to submit extensive plans and secure approval from the Energy Infrastructure Safety agency.
If their plans are OK’d, they’re eligible to receive a safety certificate. That enables them to collect money from an insurance fund designed to buffer the utilities from massive liabilities from mega-fires.
The multibillion-dollar fund was created by the Legislature after damages from the Camp Fire and 2017 wine-country fires drove PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Even though it’s run by the state, the insurance pool is funded with ratepayer and shareholder dollars, not taxpayers. PG&E is poised to become the first utility to take advantage of the fund. It has told investors that it plans to seek $150 million to help cover the anticipated $1.15 billion cost from the Dixie Fire.
Agency defends utility oversight
In a nine-page response to the state audit, the Energy Infrastructure Safety agency defended its oversight and said it work has resulted in “a massive shift in the way utilities plan for safety and implement those plans.
“Energy Safety is confident this progress in wildfire safety and the associated outcomes will compound over time and result in a vastly safer California,” wrote agency’s Director Caroline Thomas Jacobs.
She also defended the agency’s decision to award safety certificates despite flaws in the plans. The system is “forward-looking and designed to encourage and incentivize electrical corporations to invest in safeety and improve safety culture,” she wrote.
Tilden’s audit also took aim at the Public Utilities Commission. Although the commission conducts regular audits of California’s utilities’ safety plans, the agency “does not consistently audit all areas in the utilities’ service territories, it did not audit several areas that include high fire-threat areas, and it does not use its authority to penalize utilities when its audits uncover violations,” the state audit says.
The commission, in its formal response to the state audit, said it agrees “it should use a risk-based approach” for its investigations.