‘Act of God’? More like PG&E hubris

Retired registered engineer Paul Cella, a resident of Butte Valley, has written about the design of overhead electrical conductors for the Journal of Structural Engineering.

Regardless of the original source of the electrical energy, if you live in PG&E’s service territory, you must purchase the delivery from PG&E, a legal monopoly that operates under a state franchise. In an ideal world, the concept of a “regulated public utility” makes sense. But in reality, PG&E runs its distribution business as it sees fit, and state regulation amounts to little more than window dressing.

Are PG&E service failures inevitable and unpreventable? Let’s look at the facts.

1. Extreme weather occurrences are not “Acts of God.”
Accurate, official records go back more than 100 years, and historical extremes are an indication of what can be expected in the future. PG&E management operates under the misconception that it is “too expensive” to design a distribution system that will continue to operate during expected extreme weather conditions.

As just one common example, consider the “short-out” when wind blows a line into contact with wet tree branches. PG&E could prevent this failure by insulating the relatively short portions of its lines abutting trees; this would cost only a few hundred dollars (a one-time expense) in most situations. But PG&E prefers to leave the conductors bare; then it pays work crews many thousands of dollars in overtime to clear the “fault” each time it occurs.

2. PG&E does not make system-wide use of modern technology.
If you look at photographs taken 100 years ago, you will see the same wooden poles and uninsulated wires in common use today. Highly developed areas have long been served by underground insulated lines. Rural customers pay the same rate for electrical distribution, but the benefits of modern available technology are denied to them.

3. PG&E employees who make repairs under harsh weather conditions are not heroes.
They are paid a good salary and good benefits to be available year-round to do their jobs. And when they are called out to restore service, they are paid additional premium overtime money, which comes from the customers.

4. PG&E does a miserable job with estimated times for restoring service.
During the Jan. 4-7 outage, grossly conflicting information was repeatedly furnished to customers. This indicates that company managers and supervisors were totally uncoordinated on an internal basis.

PG&E has the knowledge, resources and ability to make needed improvements, but there is little incentive in the absence of competition and effective regulation.

Either the Legislature will have to exert political pressure to force the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate PG&E’s distribution operation in a manner that benefits consumers, or consumers will have to initiate a legal proceeding via a class-action lawsuit to force PG&E to take the steps necessary to update its distribution system to a degree of reliability consistent with modern available technology.