With 90 days to go before the beginning of fire season, a San Francisco federal judge told PG&E and its regulators Tuesday that there is no longer the “luxury of time” to resolve the ground rules for power shutoffs in fire season. In the eyes of the judge, it has become a “matter of life and death.”

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup’s comments came during a continued hearing on a proposal to amend the conditions of probation that were imposed on PG&E following its criminal conviction in 2016.

In remarks at the start of Tuesday’s hearing and in his earlier order initiating the hearing, the judge reminded the parties of the grim history.

In 2010, a PG&E gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno killing eight and injuring 58. In 2016, in a rare criminal prosecution of a corporation, a federal jury convicted PG&E on six felony counts. The maximum fine was imposed and the company was put on probation, with a condition being that PG&E would not commit “another federal, state or local crime.”

That ushered in what the Judge called “a stunning chapter in California history.” According to his tally, since probation was imposed, “PG&E has ignited 20 or more wildfires in California, killing at least 111 individuals, destroying at least 22,627 structures, and burning half a million acres.”

Among the specifics: the Wine Country Fires in 2017 (22 dead, 3,256 structures destroyed); the Camp Fire in 2018 (85 dead, 18,793 structures burned); the Kincade Fire in 2019 (374 structures destroyed); and most recently the Zogg Fire in 2020 (4 dead, 204 structures destroyed).

In 2020, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in connection with the 2018 Camp Fire. By that time, PG&E had initiated bankruptcy proceedings in which it ultimately paid $13.5 billion to a victims’ compensation fund.

The dawn of Public Safety Power Shutoffs

During the 2019 fire season, PG&E used “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” or PSPSs to “de-energize” power to specific lines when high wind conditions posed a significant risk of causing fire.

PSPSs result in consumers in the affected areas losing power for what might be days at a time until the dangerous conditions pass and service is restored.

In reviewing the circumstances of the Zogg Fire, the judge said he was “surprised” to learn that in making its power shutoff decision, PG&E “does not consider the extent to which distribution lines have been cleared of hazardous trees and limbs.”

The judge called that “shocking” and subsequently ordered the parties to address the issue through new potential conditions of probation.

At a hearing held Feb. 3, PG&E presented a proposal to address the judge’s concerns, but conceded that its proposal would not have de-energized the line where the Zogg Fire likely started.

At the renewed hearing on Tuesday, PG&E presented a new proposal for power shutoffs that would have de-energized the relevant Zogg line, had it been in place at the time. Moreover, according to PG&E’s counsel, the new proposal would abate a large percentage — though not all — of the risk of wildfire when a tree falls during heavy winds and strikes PGE’s uninsulated power lines.

PG&E’s counsel pointed out that the proposal would come at the cost of more frequent and potentially longer PSPSs.

PG&E presented modeling that predicted the number of PSPSs that would have been imposed in its service territory over the last 10 years under the protocol it proposed at the first hearing. It then compared that baseline to the predicted PSPSs under the current proposal.

The modeling predicted that there would have been a total of 27 PSPSs under the baseline compared to 45 under the new proposal, a 67 percent increase.

A section of burned land, with power lines under repair, is seen near the shoreline on Lake Oroville in Butte County on Oct. 28, 2020. Proposed changes to how and when PG&E implements Public Safety Power Shutoffs could lead to increased use of PSPSs during the next wildfire season, state regulators say. (Photo by Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources)

More PSPSs, more time, more people affected

The new proposal would also have increased the number of affected customers by 55 percent and the number of hours of shut off by 51 percent.

The model also predicted a 22 percent increase in the length of shutoffs for the largest 27 events.

The predicted increases would not have affected all areas equally. Heavily wooded counties, like Butte, Yuba and Placer, would have had roughly double the number of PSPSs as under the baseline.

A lawyer for the California Public Utilities Commission, the state agency with responsibility for regulating PG&E’s activities, urged the court to proceed slowly with the new protocol, pointing out that it was just the “probationer’s proposal” and had not yet been vetted or tested by other parties.

Speaking for the CPUC, Christine Hammond noted that the potential benefits from de-energizing the lines had to be balanced against the impact on consumers who would lose their power. She noted that many rural residents rely on electricity for phone service and that their cellphones won’t work if the power to the cell towers goes out. While backup generators at the towers offer some protection, many only operate for 24 hours after power is lost.

Hammond noted that the CPUC has heard from hundreds of consumers complaining about the dangers caused to them during prior shutoffs, including those who rely on medical devices powered by electricity. She said that the voices of those consumers must be factored into the balance.

The judge said that he was sensitive to the impact of power shutoffs on the community, but he reminded the parties of the people who died in their cars trying to escape the Zogg Fire.

He said that the current situation was caused by the fact that for a decade PG&E had neglected its duty to manage vegetation near its power lines and the CPUC had allowed that neglect.

The judge said the result was that California now faces a terrible “Hobson’s choice,” leaving only a determination of which is the lesser of “two tremendous evils.”

Alsup did not issue a ruling at the hearing, but said he would act soon given the urgent need for PG&E to implement plans for the fire season ahead.