Policy & Regulation

PG&E says its equipment likely caused deadly 2018 Camp Fire

Northern California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, which declared bankruptcy in the wake of expected liabilities in deadly wildfires over the past few years, admitted in a federal filing and earnings report that its equipment likely caused the deadly November 2018 Camp Fire.

PG&E notified the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it believes transmission failure ignited what many say was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. The utility reported that it was taking a $10.5 billion pre-tax charge in the fourth quarter related to the Camp Fire claims against it.

The SEC filing details equipment failures which likely contributed to the blaze that killed 86 people, destroyed more than 10,000 structures and damaged about 150,000 acres

The California Department of Fire and Forestry identified the state of the Camp Fire as 6:33 a.m. on November 8. Eighteen minutes earlier, PG&E’s Caribou-Palmermo 115-kV transmission relayed and de-energized, while a fire was observed near that point and had damaged the transmission tower, according to reports.

“On November 14, 2018, the company observed a broken C-hook attached to the separated suspension insulator that had connected the suspension insulator to a tower arm, along with wear at the connection point,” the PG&E filing reads. “In addition, a flash mark was observed on Tower :27/222 near where the transposition jumper was suspended and damage to the transposition jumper and suspension insulator was identified.”

The company also noted other outages around that time but did not confirm whether those helped ignite the fire. High coastal winds and dry conditions created multiple vulnerable points for potential blazes, according to reports.

PG&E also reported it is taking an additional $1 billion pre-tax charge related to the northern California fires in 2017. Altogether, the company has booked close to $14 billion in charges for liabilities in the 2017 and 2018 fires.

After its bankruptcy, PG&E informed the California Public Utilities Commission that it might split up its electric and gas divisions.

It was absolved in the Tubbs Fire, which was caused by homeowner equipment.

A U.S. judge in 2017 put PG&E on five years of probation following its conviction on pipeline safety charges stemming from a 2010 explosion of one of its pipelines in the San Francisco Bay Area. The blast killed eight people, and a judge warned earlier this year that the utility’s alleged actions in the recent wildfires may have violated probation from the pipeline case.

(Rod Walton is content manager for Power Engineering and POWERGEN International. He can be reached at 918-831-9177 and [email protected]).