SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Equipment owned by California’s three largest utilities ignited more than 2,000 fires in 3.5 years — a timespan in which state regulators cited and fined the companies nine times for electrical safety violations.
How the state regulates utilities is under growing scrutiny following unprecedented wildfires suspected to have been caused by power line issues, blazes that have destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people.
Lacking the manpower and sophisticated technology necessary to monitor more than 250,000 miles of power lines across the state, regulators rely on something of an honor system, with utilities responsible for ensuring all trees and vegetation are cut back far enough from electrical equipment before the onset of dry, high-fire danger conditions.
Destructive wildfires in Paradise, wine country, Ventura County and other areas have prompted California lawmakers to consider new ways to improve regulatory oversight and hold utilities more accountable for prevention.
The California Public Utilities Commission has never fined an electrical utility company for failing to meet safety standards before a wildfire strikes. Instead, the agency fines the utilities for violations after investigations into fires find wrongdoing — and the process can drag on for years.
“The CPUC oversight of investor-owned utilities to prevent electrical or utility-caused wildfires is devastatingly absent,” said John Fiske, a lawyer who represents wildfire victims. “When you’re looking at areas that look like they’ve been bombed in a war zone, and to know that can be prevented with enforcement and oversight, it’s widely upsetting.”
Investor-owned utilities are required to file annual reports with state regulators detailing even the smallest of spot fires linked to electrical equipment. Most of the blazes are less than 10 acres in size. And many of the most destructive wildfires in recent years are not included in the data because utilities are hesitant to tie their equipment to costly blazes before state investigations conclude.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility providing electricity from Eureka to Bakersfield, reported 1,552 equipment-related fires from June 2014 through the end of 2017. Southern California Edison, the electricity supplier for 15 million people mostly south of Fresno County, reported 347 fires in that time. Serving a 4,100-square-mile area from San Clemente to the Mexican border, San Diego Gas & Electric disclosed 115 fires in the time period.
Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the safety and enforcement division at the commission, said the agency uses the data to gain insight into the cause of ignitions and found that electrical lines making contact with vegetation and other line malfunctions sparked most of the fires. The data do not include any determinations on fault or show if the utilities violated safety laws.
Malashenko said that simply because the data show there were fires related in some way to a utility’s equipment does not mean those fires are connected to safety violations and should trigger a fine or citation. But lawmakers suggest the severity of recent blazes and high number of fires proves the state’s methods to prevent disaster aren’t working.
In most cases, enforcement follows investigations into massive wildfires that decimate towns and neighborhoods. In a 3.5-year period ending in 2017, CPUC said it issued nine citations and fines related to electrical safety violations against the utilities — including $8.3 million against PG&E for the Butte fire and an additional $15 million against Edison for multiple power outages in Long Beach in 2015.
As another form of punishment, the commission has also denied requests by utilities to recover losses from ratepayers if investigations discover negligence and district attorneys file criminal charges for wrongdoing. If utility equipment is tied to wildfires, the companies also face civil suits for damages. Fire-related costs led PG&E this month to announce plans to file for bankruptcy, potentially facing $30 billion in legal liability from the recent wildfires.
This year, lawmakers in Sacramento are raising questions about wildfire prevention and electrical safety oversight, and are considering new legislation to address the issues.
Ideas include small adjustments, such as providing CPUC with more explicit prevention guidelines and assigning a state representative to monitor safety at the utilities. More radical changes, including the creation of a new state entity to enforce safety or investing in sweeping technological advancements to provide regulators with better data, may require additional taxpayer dollars and would be more difficult to accomplish.
“We are in a new reality now,” state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said. “No one has felt that more than the (investor-owned utilities), the insurance companies and more importantly, the victims in these cases. It is our responsibility to evaluate it all. Working together with the governor, I think we realize changes need to happen.”
Years-long drought, dry brush, dead trees, strong winds and outdated electrical infrastructure have made California more prone to combustion. More than 1.6 million acres burned and 100 lives were lost in 2018. Under mounting political pressure, state legislators asked for information from CPUC, the agency responsible for making sure public utilities operate safely.
Some couldn’t believe what they learned.
Michael Picker, president of the CPUC, testified at a state Capitol hearing last year that the commission is primarily an economic regulator with a central focus of making sure companies provide energy to consumers at reasonable rates. Picker told lawmakers the agency had neither the technology nor manpower to ensure safety compliance on its own.
“I was stunned,” said state Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who led the committee. “To me, we don’t have any bigger issue than this.”
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said given the dire wildfire threat, lawmakers cannot wait “for an agency to come up to speed with keeping our communities safe.”
“Their leadership has testified that they are behind the curve on safety regulations,” Jackson said. “I think, frankly, what we need do is rethink the system.”
A team of 19 people at the California Public Utilities Commission conducts on-the-ground preventive safety audits and spot checks, while also investigating wildfires.
But inspections cover only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines and 4.2 million utility poles that deliver electricity to homes and businesses throughout the state. Malashenko has requested 13 more positions dedicated to wildfire safety and enforcement next year.
“It’s not as if we actually go out in the same way that we do for rail lines, for electric and telecommunication lines,” Picker said to lawmakers last year. “There’s just too many miles for us to be able to match the 37,000-person workforce, say, at PG&E.”
Unsatisfied with PG&E’s management of its electrical infrastructure, U.S. District Judge William Alsup proposed earlier this month that the company inspect all 100,000 miles of its power lines and trim vegetation before the 2019 fire season begins.
Alsup cited the susceptibility of PG&E’s distribution lines coming into contact with trees during high-wind events as the most prevalent cause of 2017 and 2018 wildfires linked to the company’s equipment. On Wednesday, the company said performing inspections and cutting back vegetation could cost at least $75 billion and the job would be impossible to complete in the given time.
Concerns over wildfire safety are not limited to enforcement. Some say new technology is vital to solving the crisis.
In his first week in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to modernize the state’s system for procuring technology contracts and emphasized working with the private sector to address fire detection.
Newsom’s state budget proposes $9.2 million for the CPUC to address “oversight of investor-owned utility compliance with legislative requirements to reduce the risk of utility-caused wildfires” and review new wildfire mitigation plans required by the Legislature.
Malashenko applauded the governor’s attention to technology. The state and companies such as PG&E need more data and better systems to understand wildfire risks and address prevention, she said.
CPUC officials can’t say if fires linked to utility equipment in the data on wildfire ignitions were caused by safety violations, or if the policies requiring the companies to maintain vegetation clearances around power lines are working.
The agency is currently matching its records to investigative findings from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to gain a clearer picture of the problem, although Malashenko says the efforts have taken a back seat to the 2018 wildfires.
Technological advancements, such as better real-time weather modeling, would more accurately determine the conditions that drive wildfires. Aerial drone patrols could ensure that required vegetation clearance is constantly maintained. Although humans can offer only subjective assessments on the ground, technology can provide more granular detail and identify risks and trends based on the specific threats in a local area, she said.
California, Malashenko argues, already has the most stringent safety requirements and the largest electric safety program in the nation. At least for now, state regulators are largely drawing a road map to prevent wildfires as they go.
“Yes, maybe there’s some opportunity to do more inspections, but … what is the end goal here?” Malashenko said. “Are we really going to make that much of a difference if we just increase the current system? We need to take a step back and really rethink it and design a program that addresses this challenge.”