USA: PG&E: what’s next for the utility at the center of California’s wildfires
By Susie Cagle
It was like a scene out of a dystopian future film: a second world war air raid siren blasted over a blacked-out west Sonoma county in northern California to warn residents as winds picked up Saturday night and pushed the Kincade fire closer.
But the shutoffs ostensibly meant to cut wildfire danger – and PG&E’s attendant liabilities for those wildfires – left officials struggling to send evacuation alerts across the region. And days after the start of the blaze, PG&E admitted that a still-energized transmission cable had malfunctioned shortly before the fire ignited.
Turning off the power in order to prevent wildfire starts was supposed to be an option of last resort. When the state approved PG&E’s deenergization plans for public safety power shutoffs last year, no one seemed prepared for how frequently the utility would be conducting rolling blackouts for millions of residents: in October, some Californians suffered three separate power shutdowns. In some places, it was functionally just two – because PG&E didn’t finish inspecting lines and restoring service before it turned off the lights yet again.
After PG&E’s grid was linked to deadly fires in 2017 and 2018 that totaled close to the company’s market value, the utility filed for bankruptcy. But any new PG&E-sparked fires pose a challenge to the company’s bankruptcy plans, as any post-bankruptcy fire claims will have to be paid in full before any pre-bankruptcy claims, which includes the $10.5bn in estimated liabilities from the 2018 Camp fire that PG&E admitted was sparked by its faulty infrastructure.
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