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  • Pacific Gas and Electric is California's largest utility

  • company. And it has a massive wildfire problem.

  • The utility giant PG&E filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

  • protection, the company facing billions of dollars in potential

  • liabilities for its role in last year's deadly wildfires.

  • A new report out today on California's deadliest wildfire

  • ever the inferno north of Sacramento killed 85 people,

  • destroyed 18,000 homes and buildings.

  • The Sonoma County DA has filed criminal charges against PG&E

  • over its role in starting the 2019 Kincade fire.

  • 5 of the 10 most destructive fires in California since 2015,

  • have been linked to PG&E's equipment. With 25,000 miles of

  • power lines in high fire threat areas. PG&E has spent the last

  • couple years relying heavily on one simple way to reduce the

  • risk of it causing a spark. Shut the power off.

  • So it happened twice for almost a full week at a time and we

  • essentially lost that full week of service. We lost all of our

  • food supply, we were not able to operate, we lost that revenue.

  • So now PG&E is trying out a new solution for keeping the power

  • on safely in remote areas. It's this small standalone renewable

  • microgrid in the mountains of Briceburg, California.

  • So this system is powering five customer meters year round 24/7

  • 365.

  • PG&E is also building bigger backup microgrids as part of its

  • $5 billion 2021 Fire Mitigation Plan. It also includes 300 new

  • weather stations to monitor for severe conditions, LIDAR, drones

  • and hundreds of cameras to provide 90% visual coverage of

  • high fire threat areas, hardening the system by doing

  • things like moving 23 miles of line near Paradise underground,

  • and more aggressive clearing of trees around powerlines.

  • We must succeed, civilization, California, our communities need

  • all of us to come together to figure out how to solve all

  • these things at once to get clean, reliable, safe,

  • affordable energy. But, we have to we are not just going to pack

  • up and leave California.

  • We went to Briceburg to see the five customer microgrid that

  • PG&E says is proof it's committed to doing better and

  • visited communities asking the utility to work harder at

  • keeping their power on and keeping them safe.

  • Keeping the power on for 16 million Californians is a big

  • job. So is maintaining the integrity of more than 100,000

  • miles of power lines, while keeping it clear of vegetation

  • that could turn a spark into a deadly wildfire.

  • All this while answering to California regulators and as an

  • investor owned utility, shareholders.

  • The management of the company mostly tried in the years

  • leading up to Napa Sonoma and Paradise to please shareholders

  • by controlling costs.

  • The deadliest fire in California history occurred in Paradise in

  • 2018 when a live wire broke free from a 99 year old PG&E electric

  • tower. It was 25 years past what PG&E considers its useful life.

  • 85 people died.

  • There's one person who committed suicide in his home. As the fire

  • was bearing down on him he decided to take his own life,

  • rather than wait for the fire to consume him. So PG&E did not

  • plead guilty to the death of that person. But they did plead

  • guilty to the death of 84 other people

  • Clearly there were oversights. And clearly we wish it hadn't

  • happened.

  • PG&E is trying everything it can think of, because it knows that,

  • you know, it needs to repair its relationship with the state of

  • California.

  • By January 2019, PG&E was in bankruptcy. It emerged last year

  • after agreeing to pay more than $25 billion in damages to

  • insurers and 70,000 victims of the fires it's caused since

  • 2015.

  • The way that we operated our electric system in the 20th

  • century, is no longer safe. We've got crumbling

  • infrastructure as a country, all over the place. This is not

  • unique to PG&E.

  • Indeed, investigators in Southern California found San

  • Diego Gas and Electric at fault for a series of fires that

  • killed 10 people in 2007. Texas power companies failed to keep

  • the power on during this year's winter storms. Portland based

  • Pacific Power is under investigation for the deadly

  • 2020 wildfires. But a frontline investigation found that going

  • back more than a decade, PG&E resisted spending money on

  • preventative measures, saying wind driven fire risk and its

  • territory of Northern California was significantly lower than in

  • Southern California. But while utilities in Southern California

  • launched weather stations, cameras and satellites after the

  • 2007 fires, climate change has drastically increased the risk

  • in the north. Last year saw five of the six largest wildfires in

  • California's history all in PG&E's service territory.

  • Since 2018, the simplest way PG&E reduces the risk of

  • equipment sparks is by shutting it off in high risk areas during

  • dry, windy weather. It calls these Public Safety Power

  • Shutoffs or PSPS events.

  • There was a big fire in 2019 called the Kincade fire that was

  • ignited by PG&E equipment. But because it was the only fire

  • during a wind event that would have ignited many, many fires,

  • if the power hadn't been shut off, all of Cal fires resources

  • were dedicated to controlling it and containing it, and that

  • meant that Healdsburg and Windsor didn't burn down.

  • PG&E had nine power shutoffs in 2019, lasting from 14 hours to

  • seven days and impacting at least 1.3 million customers.

  • That number dropped to six outages in 2020 impacting

  • 650,000 customers. Despite earlier assurances they were

  • temporary, PG&E says PSPS events are here to stay.

  • Public Safety Power Shutoff is a tool that's probably going to be

  • around for quite a while. California is not getting

  • wetter. It's getting drier it's getting hotter.

  • Just to end those first couple outages. Our losses exceeded

  • $30,000.

  • Brennen Jensen is part of the quarter of California's

  • population. 11.2 million people who live in 4.5 million homes in

  • the wildland urban interface threatened most by growing

  • wildfire risk. In 2019, she and her husband bought the 100 year

  • old Hotel Charlotte in the town of Groveland, a gateway to

  • Yosemite.

  • In normal times, this would be a bustling of restaurants. When

  • you go through the whole process to determine whether or not to

  • to take over a business in a particular area, never in that

  • calculus did we consider that our well established major

  • utility could turn off the power without any real notice.

  • Six months into running the hotel, their first PSPS outage

  • lasted seven days.

  • One of my employees who didn't have power for several days and

  • had only an electric stove, you know, called me at late at night

  • and was like can I come to the hotel and use the propane stove

  • so that I can make a bottle for my infant son.

  • Although PG&E does have a safety net program to reimburse

  • residential customers up to $100 for things like spoiled food,

  • losses during a Public Safety Power Shutoff are not eligible.

  • The food was really compromised and had to all be tossed. That

  • was really unfortunate. Twice.

  • Residents in high risk areas who can afford it are putting in

  • generators to keep the power on.

  • We have seen an incredible amount of demand on Generac

  • products in the last 12 to 18 months. From an order intake

  • perspective, it doubled even tripled for a while what we were

  • used to seeing.

  • I was actually the primary operator of our generator

  • throughout the timeframe not sleeping all through the night.

  • Jensen's generator is decades old. It was so cumbersome and

  • costly to run during the long PSPS outages in 2019 that they

  • opted to shut down their restaurant before the 2020

  • wildfire season rather than struggle to keep the power on at

  • their own cost.

  • One improvement came in 2020 when regulators started

  • requiring more ample notice to customers when the power was

  • going to turn off. PG&E also says the power came back on an

  • average of seven hours sooner in 2020 compared to 2019.

  • Power Shutoffs are here to stay. They may get smaller, but they

  • are going to be something that we have to live with for the

  • time being until we develop technological alternatives that

  • really work and that's gonna take time we have to invent

  • stuff to get our way out of this.

  • That's exactly what PG&E has done in one tiny remote area for

  • now.

  • Historically, microgrids have been thought of as as a backup.

  • This is not the backup solution, it is the solution and we think

  • it's the first of its kind.

  • They are cranking right now because it's a very sunny

  • afternoon.

  • The big difference between this standalone power system and an

  • off grid solar system you might think of on a cabin in the

  • woods. This thing is comparable to what a wire can provide. This

  • system is also designed to stay energized during Public Safety

  • Power Shutoff.

  • In April, this first of its kind renewable microgrid started

  • providing power to five customers including two homes

  • and the Briceburg Visitor Center. They've been living

  • solely off of diesel power generators since a 5000 acre

  • fire destroyed their high voltage line in 2019.

  • These customers are not paying for this directly. This is PG&E

  • using its budget for distribution costs. We were

  • going to have to rebuild this wire one way or another, we're

  • choosing to rebuild it with this system instead.

  • PG&E commissioned Grass Valley based startup BoxPower to build

  • a containerized microgrid powered by a minimum of 70%

  • solar. It's similar to systems that BoxPower deployed in Puerto

  • Rico in 2018 after Hurricane Maria took out the power grid

  • for nearly a year.

  • It's solar to batteries and then the batteries maintain that so

  • at nighttime when the sun isn't shining, that's where the

  • customer is getting their power from.

  • Two solar arrays pump power down to be stored in a lithium ferro

  • phosphate battery bank in a fire resistant shipping container.

  • In the event that there isn't enough solar, we do have the

  • backup propane generators.

  • It's to make sure that you never run out of energy no matter what

  • because this is not connected to the grid. You can't get power

  • from anywhere else. It's all produced right here on site.

  • Insulated lines, then take the power up a fortified pole and

  • across the Merced River to three of the customers

  • 6 or 700 feet over across the river to the homes that are now

  • being served off this system 24/7.

  • Two similar remote grids are already in the works. Although,

  • they're facing permitting issues due to the presence of

  • threatened species. PG&E is aiming to have 20 standalone

  • remote grids operational by 2022. With plans for several

  • hundred more.

  • Within three to five years, you'll be able to look at and

  • say this was not just a one off. But wow this is a pattern.

  • Isolating standalone power systems like this means fewer

  • miles of wire and fewer chances of sparks. PG&E is helping build

  • another 100% renewable microgrid in Humboldt County too. It'll

  • power 18 customers, including a regional airport and a U.S.

  • Coast Guard Station. And then there's 11 larger microgrids

  • being built as backup power for whole communities powered by

  • diesel generators that kick on during PSPS outages. Groveland

  • was supposed to get one last year, but PG&E says it's now

  • delayed until the end of this year.

  • It would be nice to have some better communication and

  • realistic timelines so that we can properly prepare and come up

  • with alternative strategies in the meantime.

  • Jensen who worked as an environmental scientist and

  • consultant before running Hotel Charlotte says that PG&E should

  • be powering all its microgrids and more with renewable sources

  • like in Briceburg.

  • I hope that they adopt a renewable approach that they

  • commit to scaling and replicating throughout the

  • state. This is the opportunity to be able to do this.

  • A few miles outside of Groveland, Jensen's friends

  • Deborah and Kevin Kalkowski run a four room bed and breakfast

  • and small ranch.

  • So these two horses you see here, these are Arabians.

  • When PG&E shuts the power off, Kevin uses this tractor to haul

  • five generators down from their upper farmland to keep the

  • business operating.

  • This is a 3000 watt, this is a 2000 watt. We have two of these.

  • In 2013, you know, we had to evacuate our guests. Yeah, that

  • was like our first year oh my gosh, I'm opening the business

  • and people are trying to come to Yosemite there's a buyer and

  • everything gets shut down. Luckily, in our situation where

  • it's unique, I can fall back on Kevin.

  • Kevin owns a forestry business that's booming, because people

  • hire him to clean up after PG&E comes in to cut down a rapidly

  • growing number of trees around power lines on private land.

  • PG&E has fallen hundreds of trees on some of our projects,

  • depending on how the transmission lines run through

  • that property.

  • In 2017, four fires in Napa broke out when trees hit PG&E

  • power lines. Last year, the Zogg fire killed four people in

  • Shasta County after a gray pine fell on a PG&E line.

  • It's not an easy job. Are they going to protect the community?

  • Are they going to keep people powered up? Are they're going to

  • try to maintain the integrity and the aesthetics of the

  • forest?

  • Aside from equipment failure, the leading cause of ignitions

  • in high fire threat districts is vegetation coming into contact

  • with power lines. So in 2020, PG&E did what it calls enhanced

  • vegetation management along more than 1800 miles of power lines.

  • This means that in addition to clearing all growth within 12

  • feet of a line, PG&E evaluates any tree tall enough to strike a