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    PG&E says its electric equipment is getting safer, though there's more work to do

    September 23, 2022 - Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle


      Sep. 22—The beleaguered utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. told state regulators Thursday that new leadership at the organization was yielding important changes, making Northern California's electrical grid safer and less apt to start a wildfire.

      The company has reformed its culture so that it escalates problems quickly and rushes out new ideas on how to better operate, officials said at a hearing dedicated to safety. Preemptive power shutoffs — as targeted as possible — have become the norm when fire danger is high, plans to underground 10,000 miles of wire over the next decade are in the works, and technology that better detects power line trouble, such as sparks, has been widely rolled out.

      But with the utility's long rap sheet, which includes starting some of the state's biggest and most deadly wildfires, the reported improvements have a ways to go to mend the company's reputation.

      "Every day we are keeping our focus on safety, and it's at the forefront of all of our actions," said Adam Wright, the company's executive vice president of operations and chief operating officer.

      He later added: "We know we have a lot of work to do."

      Thursday's hearing was a check-up on the practices of the state's utilities, held by the California Public Utilities Commission and the new Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, which oversee power companies and the state's electric grid. San Diego Gas & Electric also outlined its safety improvements Thursday. Other utilities were in the spotlight last week.

      The inquiry follows the escalation of wildfires caused by power equipment in recent years. Since 2017, fire officials have blamed PG&E equipment for starting more than two dozen significant blazes, including the 2018 Camp Fire in the Butte County community of Paradise, which killed 85 people and burned more than 18,000 structures.

      The company has since filed for bankruptcy protection, which it emerged from two years ago with a new reorganization and fresh leadership. Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe, who started in January 2021, has made culture change and the creation of a stronger, more resilient electric system top priorities.

      On Thursday, PG&E officials — Poppe was not present — used their time to emphasize broad governance reforms at the company, not necessarily individual actions that the company has pledged to do before with limited success. The representatives sought to present an organization that takes its safety mission seriously, at one point noting there are 1,800 15-minute reviews of operations daily.

      "The board constantly asks questions about the culture and how the leaders are faring," said Cheryl Campbell, who sits on the board of directors at PG&E Corp.

      PG&E officials said that due to a program that automatically shuts off power when computers spot equipment problems, the number and size of fires sparked by the utility's equipment has fallen dramatically — though the program cannot prevent all sparks. Utility officials said they know customers do not like losing power when the program triggers and are working on reducing the time of the outages.

      The company is also on track to put at least 175 miles of power lines underground, more than double last year's total.

      Despite the changes, the company continues to struggle with old, fragile infrastructure.

      PG&E was blamed for last year's massive Dixie Fire, which burned close to 1 million acres in Northern California. This year, its transmission poles were roped off in the investigation of the Mosquito Fire, the biggest blaze so far this season. Fire officials are yet to determine the cause of that blaze, which began in Placer County on Sept. 6.

      "Clearly you guys have done an enormous amount of work over the past four years," said Caroline Thomas Jacobs, the first director of the state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety. "With that said, ultimately what matters is: is PG&E not causing catastrophic fires anymore?"

      Chronicle climate editor Kate Galbraith contributed to this report.

      Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @kurtisalexander


      (c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle

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      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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