SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Power lines are an electric utility's equivalent of a natural gas pipelines. Poorly maintained, they can do awful damage, especially by starting big wildfires. Wednesday’s special state Senate hearing dealt with that very concern that has a track record of trouble.
In San Francisco, State Senator Jerry Hill, (D) San Bruno, called the state's three major investor-owned electricity utilities, including PG&E into a hearing. "PG&E, in 1994, diverted $77 million from what was supposed to go to repair and maintenance of their electrical lines. They diverted it to corporate profits, to shareholder profits; just as they did in the gas system with hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Senator Hill.
The question as to what those electric utilities are doing to prevent power lines from causing devastating wildfires, as it now appears was the case with the recent, massive Butte Fire, remains.
"It looks like it was caused by a PG&E line that shorted and caused the fire," says Senator Hill. "And while we still don't know whether a live tree did contact that power line and that was, in fact, the source of the fire, we wanted to be transparent," counters Joe Molica, a PG&E spokesman.
In fact, every day, PG&E's own crews and contractors are out trimming trees back; many more dying these days from a massive bark beetle infestation. "We've brought on more than 350 members of crews just to address these additional trees," says PG&E's Molica.
The hearing was where the state Public Utilities Commission meets and for a reason. According to Senator Hill, the CPUC has been unsuccessful for years trying to formulate rules about tree and vegetation management to prevent wildfires.
“We're looking at eight years that they've been looking at trying to develop maps and create the fire prevention regulations and policies to help out," says Senator Hill. PG&E counters, it's done a lot. "We've even flown daily aerial patrols and in 25 instances we were the first to report those fires to Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service," says Mr. Molica.
For PG&E, the problem is one of sheer numbers. There are 50 million trees in its vast Oregon border to Bakersfield territory. "It's a major problem and most of the fires are caused by power lines," says Senator Hill.
To increase power line inspections, PG&E announced that it just got a Federal drone permit, which eventually will enable it to regularly inspect power lines frequently, in even the most rugged areas.