Every year since 2019, California regulators have issued safety certificates to investor-owned utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric Co. after approving their plans to stop causing catastrophic wildfires. Approval is essential for utilities’ bottom lines because it gives them access to a $21 billion state-run insurance fund that helps cover liabilities when their equipment-caused fires destroy homes and businesses.
With those safety certificates in hand, PG&E equipment has continued to spark blazes that have killed four people, destroyed nearly 2,000 homes and businesses and burned more than one million acres.
A new state audit found regulators are failing to hold investor-owned utilities accountable for sparking wildfires as Californians are facing another daunting drought-dried summer.
Santa Rosa resident Will Abrams, a dogged critic of PG&E and oversight agencies since his home was destroyed in a 2017 wildfire, suggests thinking about airplanes falling out of the sky when trying to understand California’s utility-caused fires. The plane crashes. Investigators determine a widget on the craft caused it. But what if the airline kept flying planes with that widget anyway? And regulators didn’t stop them?
“What comes to pass is what we’ve seen,” Abrams said. “Error after error after error, but you didn’t learn from it.”
Auditors identified a key problem: the very mechanism for oversight legislators rushed to create after two horribly destructive and deadly wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018. Called wildfire mitigation plans, the proposals were meant to give regulators a way to measure how utilities improve the safety of electric grid operations.
Instead, the audit said, these plans are rubber-stamped even when regulators say the proposals fall short.
Michael Tilden, acting state auditor, highlighted the role of two state agencies, the California Public Utilities Commission charged with regulating utilities — including the safety, affordability and reliability of services — and the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety created to approve and oversee utility wildfire mitigation plans.
The Energy Safety office handed out safety certifications to utilities “despite serious deficiencies in their mitigation plans,” according to the auditor’s office. Utilities aren’t required to show they have prioritized projects based on wildfire risk, like covering bare power lines in forested areas at greater risk for fires.
Prioritizing projects is crucial because of the high cost and slow pace of upgrading a massive and aging electric grid. Nearly 40,000 miles of bare power lines, which don’t have covers that can protect a line from being broken, cross through areas with a high risk for wildfires — but in 2020 the six utilities reported making improvements on only 1,540 miles of lines, the audit found. Nearly 27% of bare power lines are in places with great fire threat.
Auditors also criticized regulators for failing to fully address the growing problem of blackouts when utilities cut power during dangerous fire weather. More than 3.5 million customers have lost power during 67 power shutoffs from 2013 through 2021, according to the report.
Auditors highlighted a lack of oversight for a new type of automatic power shutoff deployed by PG&E last year — a controversial program implemented in the weeks after its equipment sparked the massive Dixie Fire. It drew wide criticism for leaving too many in the dark. PG&E said the shutoffs prevented fires, but state lawmakers complained the shutoffs were too frequent and added risk for vulnerable people dependent on home-powered …….