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PG&E Workers

PG&E workers attaching conductors to an automatic circuit recloser in Yountville, Calif., last year. PHOTO: DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

PG&E Corp. said it is likely to proactively cut power to customers in Northern California more frequently this fall in anticipation of extreme wildfire risk, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The company said it has been rushing to trim trees away from power lines and inspect poles and towers ahead of wildfire season, which starts in the summer and peaks in the fall. But it is behind on some of that work and recently agreed to implement more stringent safety recommendations.

Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s chief risk officer, said in an interview that the new shut-off criteria, coupled with California’s dry weather conditions, could result in the need for more shut-offs than last year, especially if seasonal winds are as strong as they have been in recent years.

California is in the middle of a crippling drought that is expected to heighten fire risk throughout the summer and fall. About 85% of the state faces extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, up from less than 3% this time last year. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has authorized emergency mitigation efforts in many areas.

PG&E, which serves 16 million people in Northern and Central California, has relied heavily on what are known as public safety power shut-offs in recent years after its power lines sparked a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed more than 100 people. The company resorts to cutting electricity when strong winds pick up, which heightens the risk of its power lines failing under stress or sparking on contact with trees.

The company recently agreed to new shut-off criteria in response to recommendations by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the company’s criminal probation stemming from a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion south of San Francisco. PG&E will now consider whether its lines are at risk of getting hit by trees when deciding if they can safely run during windstorms. The company had historically focused on whether the equipment itself might fail.

Judge Alsup made the recommendation in response to the Zogg Fire, which ignited last fall in Shasta County, near Oregon, after a tree fell on a power line that PG&E had decided to keep running as winds picked up. Four people died.

PG&E cut power at a record scale in 2019, with nine outages that affected a total of two million people. Many were in the dark for days.

Singh said the company has made substantial progress on reducing the need for large outages by installing devices that allow for more targeted shut-offs and building out a network of weather stations and cameras to monitor conditions in greater detail. He said that while outages this fall may be more frequent, they will likely be smaller in size.

“The big, big variable that’s unpredictable here is the wind,” Mr. Singh said. “But in all the forecasts that we’ve done, we do not see ourselves getting back to the same kind of [power shut-off] events like we saw in 2019.”

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