California and federal officials have given a strong thumbs-down to utility Pacific Gas & Electric as it attempts to add wildfire protections and emerge from bankruptcy.

A federal judge threatened in a Feb. 19 hearing to withhold performance bonuses for its executives and supervisors for not meeting safety goals related to its 2020 wildfire protection plan, and the top state regulator outlined a process to revoke its operating license if it does not adequately address safety violations.

U.S.District Court Judge William Alsup in San Francisco scheduled the hearing after the company said it had fallen behind on its promise to remove hazardous trees and limbs that add to wildfires risk during windstorms.

In a court filing the day before the hearing, the company noted the extensive damage caused by vegetation and infrastructure issues. It said that, as of Oct. 31, 2019, it had identified about 8,900 high-priority distribution-line conditions that either needed immediate repair or repair within three months, and about 8,500 high-priority conditions on transmission lines.

About 180,400 lower-priority conditions on distribution lines and 92,400 lower-priority conditions on transmission lines also were found.

Alsup wants PG&E to boost the total of more than 1,000 vegetation contractors it added to 3,000 it has recently hired. The company’s total vegetation contractors is currently 5,400.

The utility is on criminal probation after a rupture in a natural gas line in 2010 caused a fire in a San Bruno neighborhood that killed eight people. 

Extra Steps in 2020

PG&E on Feb. 9 submitted its 2020 wildfire mitigation plan to the California Public Service Commission. The utility had filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after its equipment was blamed for causing wildfires.  

The new mitigation plan, an expansion of previous safety proposals, is designed to address the growing threat of extreme weather, the company said.  It includes installing 592 devices on distribution lines with the aim of reducing the number of automatic power shutoffs to communities during wildfire threats.

Adding more microgrids also is an option, the company said.

The plan also calls for hardening 241 miles of distribution lines with stronger, more resilient equipment—including covered conductor and stronger poles. Lines also could be put underground or eliminated altogether.

PG&E plans to clear vegetation along 1,800 line-miles, but the utility could not estimate the cost of all mitigation efforts.

Commission President Marybel Batjer submitted a proposal on Feb. 18 that contained enforcement actions that would be triggered mostly by PG&E safety issues. Penalties include revoking the utility’s license for the most severe violations.

Other California utilities also submitted wildfire mitigation plans.

San Diego Gas & Electric expects to spend up to $1.9 billion during the next three years to harden its distribution system and $700 million to harden its transmission system.

Southern California Edison expects to spend $3.8 billion through 2022 on its wildfire mitigation plan, the company said.