Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 29, 2022.

Top photograph: Firefighters set prescribed fires near transmission powerlines in California. (Photo GETTY)

WILDFIRE
Perfect Storm
 
The author of a compelling new book on Pacific Gas & Electric's complicity in recent California wildfires talks about the dangerous intersection of climate, energy policy and wildfire

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AND EDITED BY JESSE ROMAN


The first paragraph of Katherine Blunt’s new book, California Burning, highlights an irony of human progress: the same technologies that help us tame nature can also amplify its capacity to destroy us. That’s especially true when you add climate change, lax regulation, and pressure to cut spending into the mix.. 


RELATED PODCAST  Listen to the NFPA Podcast interview with author and energy reporter Katherine Blunt.



“A brilliant flash broke the morning darkness on November 8, 2018, as strong winds pummeled a PG&E power line scaling the Sierra Nevada ninety miles north of Sacramento,” Blunt writes in the book. “A worn hook hanging from a century-old transmission tower broke clean, dropping a high-voltage wire that spit electricity just before sunrise. A shower of sparks set dry brush aflame.”

The felled powerline, owned and operated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), ignited what quickly grew into the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. By the time it was done, the fire had killed at least 85 people, and 18,000 structures had been reduced to ash. Much of the community of Paradise, California, had been destroyed.

California Burning, published in August, details PG&E’s 117-year rise to become the largest utility in the United States, as well as its reputation for negligence and controversy. In the past decade, California state officials have traced the origin of numerous headline-grabbing events back to PG&E equipment, including three of the most destructive wildfires in state history: the Camp, Dixie, and Butte fires. PG&E equipment has been blamed for starting more than 30 wildfires since 2017, which have collectively destroyed at least 23,000 homes and killed more than 100 people, according to news reports.

But California Burning wouldn’t be as compelling if it were only interested in piling on PG&E. The dangerous interplay between energy and fire in California is the result of many root causes, with plenty of blame to go around. Climate change, clean-energy mandates, legislative shortsightedness, demands for cheap energy, and corporate greed all factor into the drama that Blunt skillfully presents. More often than not, it is residents and first responders who must pay the price when the worst predictably plays out. 

Blunt, an energy reporter at the Wall Street Journal, spoke with NFPA Journal about how climate change, economics, and aging infrastructure have worked together to accelerate the devastating impacts of wildfire in California. She also tells us why California’s experience could be a bellwether for other places around the globe. 

Tell me a bit about PG&E’s history and presence in California. 
PG&E has a long and storied history in the state. It formed at the turn of the 20th century, just as electricity was becoming more viable. There were a lot of pioneering people back then building big infrastructure networks. The company had one real competitor historically, and the two companies merged in 1930 to create the Northern California monopoly that we know today. Now, its service territory covers 70,000 square miles, and serves millions of customers across nearly all of northern and central California.

Many notable incidents over the years that can be traced back to PG&E. Based on your reporting, is this a case of a utility being particularly negligent, or is it more the case that it operates in a state that is just particularly vulnerable? 
It’s a combination of the two. In the wake of the Camp Fire in 2018, the local prosecutors did a very thorough investigation of the way PG&E had maintained its electric transmission infrastructure in the area and found evidence that the company had been recklessly negligent—that it was aware of fire risk and yet didn’t do enough to address the threat. That said, of course, there are other external factors that have made the consequences of powerline failure much higher over time. One major part of the story is the fact that the risk profile of the company’s service territory has changed considerably over the past 10 years because of periods of very severe drought, which killed millions of trees. On top of that, we’ve also seen a migration of residents into these more rural areas of the state that are served by very old infrastructure, increasing the potential for more destruction of homes and businesses. It’s a confluence of variables, and it’s extremely challenging to address.

What do we know about the transmission lines that sparked the Camp Fire?
These were high-voltage powerlines that carry electricity over long distances from generating stations. The lines are hung from the arms of their towers on strings of insulator discs—if the live wire gets too close to the metal structure it can create arcing that can be very dangerous. The hook that broke on the morning of November 8, 2018, was about the width of a fist and connected the arm of a 100-year-old transmission tower to the insulator discs. The hooks can wear down little by little as they swing in the wind over decades, and that’s exactly what happened. This hook had been purchased for something like 56 cents in 1919 and hung shortly thereafter, and it remained in place until the morning it broke nearly in half. When it broke, the wire swung against the metal tower and created an arc of electricity that settled on very dry brush below the tower. 

What did investigators learn about line maintenance? 
They found that PG&E wasn’t doing enough to inspect and maintain these tiny pieces of hardware that were holding the wires to the tower. These lines are in very remote areas and very hard to get to. PG&E wasn’t getting close enough to these hooks to understand that they were about to give out. Between roughly 2000 and 2018, the company had reduced the frequency and the thoroughness of inspection of its transmission lines. They would [inspect] this infrastructure by helicopter, or sometimes walk along the ground, but these tiny pieces of hardware are many feet in the air and difficult to observe unless you’re doing something at close range, like climbing the tower or maybe using a drone. 

After [the Camp Fire], PG&E sent inspectors to look closely at these little pieces to find out if others were at risk of failure. They found that the hook that broke and started the Camp Fire wasn’t an anomaly. They found other pieces of hardware in the vicinity that were very worn out, that had been hanging for decades, wearing down little by little. It was one of the reasons that prosecutors determined that this had been reckless negligence and that PG&E should have been aware of this and knew that there was risk but wasn’t doing enough to address it. Later, PG&E did a full-scale inspection of all equipment in these high-threat fire areas and found a lot of things that should have been addressed over the years and weren’t.

What were some of the issues PG&E found?
Kind of everything. There were other issues with hardware. There were issues with structural integrity in general, like equipment that was worn out or degraded. Either the company didn’t notice, or it had deferred repair. They had to work very hard to install temporary fixes until they could get out and make sure that everything truly was safe. And then, of course, there’s inherent risk throughout the system. Things fail for all kinds of reasons. Even if you think you’ve taken every precaution, the risk is inherent. It’s a very tough situation that the company faces.

You explain in the book that PG&E isn’t an outlier when it comes to old transmission lines and equipment. 
Transmission lines are some of the oldest parts of the grid in many places. The lines I’m referring to in California were some of the first large transmission networks in the country and date back to the 1920s. A lot of other transmission lines were built just after World War II to support massive population growth, and while they might not date to the twenties, they are still coming up on 70 years old or more. That’s not to say that they’re all in a state of disrepair. Different companies have different approaches for maintaining things and replacing components.

It’s easy to fault utilities for not investing in infrastructure and safety, but what other factors contributed to the lack of safety over the years in California’s utilities? 

These utilities are supposed to be subject to close regulatory oversight. But the regulatory body in California, the California Public Utilities Commission, oversees many industries and was stretched very thin in the years where we saw PG&E’s system safety decline precipitously. The regulator also underestimated the extent to which climate change was going to change the risk profile of PG&E’s service territory, similar to the way the company underestimated it. And there’s been criticism—and I don’t really get into this in the book as much as perhaps I should have—over how to better manage [wildfire-prone areas] so that when something inevitably happens, the likelihood of these huge, uncontrollable fires can be lessened. It’s not just power lines that cause fires—it’s lightning, campfires, accidental ignition from anything. We need more proactive forest management and that’s another agency. So this is absolutely the convergence of a lot of different things.

You write that California’s government “treated PG&E as a tool in their quest to preempt the long-term effects of climate change with ambitious renewable energy mandates. In doing so, they failed to recognize that a changing climate had made PG&E’s power lines an immediate threat to the state.” Unpack that for us—how are climate change, renewable energy mandates, and energy safety connected? 
This is one of the more ironic themes in the book. Starting in 2005, California was setting some very ambitious renewable energy targets in pursuit of carbon reduction. That meant adding a lot more wind and solar to the system, and the utilities were required to help procure that. All three of the state’s big utilities, PG&E chief among them, contracted for a huge amount of wind and solar power over the years. Because of the way the power market is set up in California, utilities are not going out and building these wind and solar farms—that’s important, because if they were actually building them, they would earn a return on their investments. Instead, they were simply contracting for the power from developers. These contracts were treated as expenses that were passed through to customers. 

How did that impact safety?
Today, wind and solar are some of our cheapest forms of generation, but at that time they were much more expensive. Collectively, these companies are spending billions of dollars on these renewable energy contracts, which meant that customers’ rates were rising. It’s one of several factors that created pressure to reduce expenses within PG&E. The company did that, in part, by reducing inspection frequency and thoroughness. To the extent that the regulator had any effective influence, it was in making sure that these renewable energy goals were met. By contrast, the safety enforcement division was understaffed and underfunded relative to the policy division. So as these utilities are racing to get these clean energy contracts to reduce carbon over time—at the expense of safety—the climate is changing and now PG&E is confronting a set of risks that neither the regulator nor the company truly understood.

Is safety and clean energy an either/or proposition? Can’t we do both at the same time? 
We do need to do both at the same time—the energy transition needs to happen but can’t come at the expense of safety. The difficulty is easier to understand when you understand how utilities make money. Large investor-owned utilities, which provide most of the country’s electricity, earn a regulated rate of return on capital investments that improve the overall value of their systems. That mostly means building a new power plant, building a new power line, making some sort of improvement to the system that truly elevates its financial value. They do not make money on day-to-day inspections and maintenance programs. The things that maintain system safety but don’t improve its value are treated as expenses that are passed on to customers.

All companies have finite resources, and those that are the best performers on Wall Street are good at minimizing expenses and freeing up money to invest as capital. In theory, this can work, but if you cut expenses too much, it can come at the expense of system safety, which is what happened with PG&E. 

How are current trends impacting the situation? 
We’re moving into a period where the nation’s power grid is aging and is becoming more expensive to inspect and maintain. Companies also have to make large capital investments, whether it be in new wind and solar or in new transmission lines that will carry this new renewable energy over long distances. So they have big capital spending plans, and they must do more in terms of expenses. It’s a tough balancing act and clearly an expensive one. 

To add to that, for a long time in this country we had low natural gas prices, which meant that it didn’t cost nearly as much to produce or procure power for these utilities. But that’s not the case anymore. We still rely on natural gas, and customers are beginning to feel that we’re in an overall inflationary environment as rates go up. How much can utility customers be asked to bear? On top of that, electricity demand had plateaued for a long time as a result of energy efficiency, but now we’re adding a bunch of electric vehicles and doing more to electrify our homes, so the utilities have to invest to prepare for this greater demand and make sure this aging system can handle it. The challenges are coming on all sides. Good utility management is critical, obviously, but so is strong regulatory oversight. These are big challenges. 

Do you think what’s happening in California in terms of energy safety should be a warning for the rest of the country, or for the world?  
Absolutely. These challenges are evident throughout the country. The layer on top of all this is the fact that climate change isn’t just affecting California, it’s resulting in stronger storms in every storm-prone area. It’s creating longer periods of drought in other drought-prone areas. Even something as seemingly anomalous as the Texas freeze in 2021 had a climate signature, and that event underscored a lack of investment in certain critical infrastructure. Utilities everywhere are having to confront new climate risks and figure out what that means. This is an industry that’s historically been very backward looking when it comes to risk assessment. Now, the smart utilities have to be more forward looking about it. Everywhere, these companies are having to manage the cost of the energy transition and what that entails, with new climate risks, all while maintaining an aging grid. I think if a company has a history of mismanaging spending or mismanaging risk, it’s only going to become more difficult as these challenges become more acute.

What lessons do you want policymakers to take from your book? 

It’s such a complicated story, and it’s so easy to focus on one aspect of it, whether it’s climate change or underspending on system safety. But it’s the confluence of so many things, and smart policy and smart regulation have to take all of this into account. I really hope the book adds more nuance to a conversation that is so often just unilaterally anti-PG&E. We absolutely need some of the smartest minds addressing these things. Obviously, the consequences of failure are really high. If the power grid fails, it impacts human health and safety, and it causes massive economic slowdowns. So much rides on it, and we’re moving into a period in history in which we are becoming even more reliant on energy.

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor of NFPA Journal. All photographs: USFA