Judge mulls requiring PG&E to turn off power more frequently


SAN RAMON, Calif. — A federal judge overseeing Pacific Gas & Electric’s criminal probation said Tuesday that he is considering requiring the utility to be more aggressive about turning off its electricity lines near tall trees, a plan that could double the number of power outages in six Northern California counties over the next decade.

The proposal outlined during a two-hour court hearing is the latest effort to prevent the utility’s equipment from sparking more deadly wildfires by reducing the likelihood that trees could fall into the utility’s long-neglected electrical equipment. U.S. District Judge William Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s safety precautions as part of the utility’s criminal probation after its natural gas lines blew up a suburban neighborhood south of San Francisco in 2010.

Alsup indicated Tuesday that he is leaning toward imposing the tougher conditions.

The California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees utilities, is opposing the additional power shut-offs, which it contends would impose undue hardship on about 900,000 people who live in the mostly rural counties of Trinity, Placer, Shasta, Tehama, Madera and Mendocino.

The federal court hearing, held online, came a day after California investigators released a report concluding that a Shasta County wildfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings last September was sparked by a tree that fell into a PG&E power line.

PG&E’s potential liability for that September fire came just a few months after it emerged from a 17-month stint in bankruptcy triggered by its responsibility for a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 27,000 buildings.

The utility has since adopted a program of pre-emptively cutting power in areas where fire danger is high.

PG&E attorney Kevin Orsini said the utility shares the judge’s goal of reducing wildfire risks posed by its power lines as the company pours billions of dollars into upgrading its equipment. He said the plan is workable.

The judge said he is now faced with a “Hobson’s choice” of imposing measures that will increase the frequency and scope of power outages during windy and hot conditions to the consternation of affected households and businesses or allowing the electricity to stay on at the risk of losing more lives and homes.

The judge asked PG&E to submit more information about how the tougher conditions would affect the frequency of blackouts before he makes a ruling that he said will come ahead of the start of this summer’s wildfire season.

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