More PG&E Drama?

As if they needed it.

It’s hard out there for a utility.

Like a sports referee, doing the job effectively often yields little to no praise. Yet when a mistake is made, everything is amplified, and critics pounce. This harsh reality is perhaps best represented (at least recently) by Pacific Gas & Electric, who on October 10th were linked to the wildfires that tore through Northern California wine country for the past two weeks.

Power equipment failures—including downed lines, transformers igniting, and service disruption—were all captured in connection to the fires that arose quickly and in deadly fashion in Napa and Sonoma counties, leading skeptical eyes to wander to PG&E, which services not only that area but a majority of the state. The immediate questions raised were about whether the company adhered to proper maintenance practices along the lines and substations in question; specifically whether or not they adequately cut back trees overhanging power lines that pose a dangerous fire risk. This is a California state law for utilities, and PG&E has been cited for negligence in the past.

PG&E officials issued a statement acknowledging the equipment troubles even as a company spokesman called the questions about maintenance “highly speculative.”

“The historic wind event that swept across PG&E service area late Sunday and early Monday packed hurricane-strength winds in excess of 75 mph in some cases,” said PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman.

The San Francisco-based power supplier doesn’t need additional bad press. It’s basically gotten nothing but since 2010.

On January 23, 2017, the utility was subjected to a diverse, multi-faceted punishment—that included public shaming, community service, and monitoring—for its role in a 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that left eight people dead. Ultimately, the six-year saga concluded with the utility paying more in reputation than money. Executives were ordered to release a series of commercials in admission of the crimes, and PG&E employees were required to perform over 800 hours of community service. The utility as a whole was also assigned an independent monitor and branded as a convicted felon. The $3 million fine imposed by a federal judge was minuscule compared to the original amount of $562 million proposed during the trial last year. The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson is punctuated by an order for five years of probation—the maximum amount of time legally authorized.]

Fallout from the latest episode of PG&E drama remains TBD. As Nauman stated, the utility was dealt a rare weather event. They also span the largest coverage area of any utility in the country, making it tough to keep tabs on everything. What is clear: a company whose name developed a bad connotation over the last decade now pops up next to another tragedy, which will be hard to disassociate.


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