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Climate and Environment

California Utilities Aren’t Doing Enough To Reduce Wildfire Threats, Audit Says

A fire continues burning behind a few scorched cars.
The 2018 Woolsey Fire burns a structure in Malibu.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu
AP )
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As record-breaking drought fuels another potentially dangerous wildfire season, state officials are failing to hold California’s electric utilities accountable for preventing fires caused by their equipment, according the state auditor.

The report presented Thursday to the California legislature found that the new Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety approved utility companies’ wildfire prevention plans even when they were “seriously deficient.” It noted plans by Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, which was held responsible for sparking the state’s deadliest wildfire, the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people.

While power companies are working to make their equipment more fire-resistant, neither the energy office nor the Public Utilities Commission has done enough to ensure that the companies prioritized upgrades where they're most needed — in high fire-risk areas, according to the 91-page report.

Since 2015, power lines have caused six of California’s 20 most-destructive wildfires, it said. Uninsulated lines and older transformers and other equipment are dangerous during high winds, when falling trees or flying debris can strike them and spark flames.

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The energy office, which was part of the PUC until it was moved last summer to the Natural Resources Agency, has a broad charge to monitor the risk of utility-caused fires and issue safety certificates to power companies. The report cited instances when the office approved plans that it knew to be inadequate or vague.

“Given the nightmarish wildfires that have become part of normal life in recent years, California taxpayers would be right to ask if they’re paying for utility watchdogs or lap dogs at the CPUC,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization that tracks wildfire issues.

Representatives of PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The State Auditor’s office criticized the PUC for not conducting thorough audits of work that companies said they performed. The PUC “does not use its authority to penalize utilities when its audits uncover violations,” the report said. Among its range of duties, the commission regulates privately-owned utilities and is supposed to ensure the safe operation of the state’s electric grid.

PUC officials said they agreed with most of the report’s recommendations. The commission will “establish a plan and timelines toward implementing the recommendations identified in the California State Auditor’s report,” spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in a statement.

In a letter accompanying the report, Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden raised concerns about the increasing numbers of so-called public safety power shutoffs, when companies cut power during times of high fire risk. Tilden noted that between 2013 through 2021, the state’s largest utilities shut off power to more than 3.6 million customers during 67 power curtailments. In 2020 alone, there were some 600 unplanned power outages, the report said.

Authorities are not doing enough to ensure the companies prioritize equipment upgrades in high-risk areas, the report found. In 2020, utilities reported they had replaced or upgraded equipment on 1,540 miles of lines.

But as of last summer, there were 40,000 miles of bare power lines in high fire-risk areas, the report found.

“Even if all of the improvements they completed in 2020 consisted of replacing bare power lines in high fire-threat areas with covered or underground lines, they would have addressed only 4 percent of such lines,” Tilden wrote.

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State law requires utilities to begin identifying sections of line that are regularly affected by power shutoffs. The report suggested the legislature could strengthen this law by requiring utilities to identify what is necessary to prevent future power shutoffs.

In recent years, consumer and ratepayer groups have regularly criticized efforts by the state’s largest investor-owned utilities — PG&E, San Diego Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison — to upgrade their equipment, and complained that the state’s utility regulator is not a vigorous monitor of the industry.

In written responses included in the report, the agencies in some instances challenged factual assertions and in others noted that many of the suggested changes require legislative action.

The audit carries no authority other than to inform the legislature. The process does include a status update, beginning in 60 days, to record responses and note any actions taken regarding the auditor’s recommendations.

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