PG&E made shutoff decisions on ‘junk science’
An ABC10 investigation shows how PG&E made shutdown decisions to prevent wind-triggered forest fires without good wind data. PG&E could have afforded to do better.
SHASTA COUNTY, California – Eight-year-old Feyla McLeod and her mother, Alaina Rowe McLeod lived in a 1.24 square mile box known as “Grid Cell 133_379” on a map created by PG&E. A cell that they could never escape on the day the flames of the Zogg Fire made them run for their lives.
Since the company is a federal criminal on probation, PG&E had to disclose its methods to a judge in order to make life and death decisions about shutting off the power supply on that windy September day.
ABC10’s analysis of the data submitted by PG&E reveals a fundamental flaw in the business plan: PG&E implemented a complicated algorithm to measure the risk of wind-triggered wildfire that starts in any grid field on its map without to know the actual wind conditions in each square.
“This is junk science,” said former prosecutor Mike Aguirre, who represents PG&E clients on the company’s probation. “Basically what you’re discovering is that this is another joke. This is another scam.
The decisions made (or not made) by PG&E on the day of the Zogg Fire call into question the effectiveness of PG&E’s entire planned power outage program to prevent forest fires affecting millions of PG&E customers in and caused headaches and worse around Tierra del Fuego.
“I’m afraid. Not just for myself, but for our community and our state,” said former State Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, a law professor who is co-counsel for PG&E clients.
Sandoval “saw no scientific justification at all” for PG & E’s methods when our investigation revealed them on a map.
Our research also found that PG&E could have afforded to buy at least 1,000 more wind monitors to improve data in forested mountains. Instead, they donated $ 1.2 million to California politicians and political campaigns.
The company had previously written to the court that “PG&E does not believe [political donations] were more important than utilities, ”including forest fire prevention.
PG&E declined to respond to ABC10’s questions on this story and instead referred us to the federal court file on which our findings are based.
Shasta County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the Zogg Fire for possible criminal charges against PG&E, which could include the murder of the four people who died in the hills around the Igo and Ono parishes.
Cal Fire, which has confiscated portions of the PG&E power line and a nearby jaw, will complete its investigation into the cause in the coming months.
California laws and regulations require utilities to fell and cut trees that fall on power lines and cause fires.
NOTE: This investigation was carried out by the ABC10 report project FIRE – POWER – MONEY. If you have any tip that might help you learn more about the California utility and forest fire crisis, please reach out to investigative reporter Brandon Rittiman at [email protected]
PG&E owns a monopoly the size of Oklahoma with 100,000 miles of power lines in the air.
The company has paid criminal and / or civil damages for starting fires that have killed 131 people since 2015. PG&E tried to get the risk of forest fires under control by dividing the PG&E service area into preset network cells two kilometers in length. two kilometers, ”the company told the federal court.
On each of those 1.24-mile squares marked on PG & E’s map, the company makes hourly calculations to estimate the risk of a major fire from its power lines.
To do this, PG&E relied on a complicated proprietary algorithm that blends together data that includes the history of power outages, past forest fires, and fuel moisture.
The plan’s biggest flaw is that wind speed, which is just one of the many data points used, isn’t actually measured on each of the squares.
In the case of the Zogg fire, the wind measurements closest to where the fire started came from grid cell 135-377. This lattice square is on flat land on the opposite side of the parish of Igo from the hills where the fire started.
The nearest PG&E weather station was 3.5 miles from the point of origin of the fire, about 600 feet below.
“Everything in this area tells me that one would expect the weather where this fire is to be different than where this weather station is,” said Sandoval.
She agreed that PG & E’s plan is akin to a ski resort, which makes safety decisions for people using the chairlifts by measuring the wind in the parking lot.
“Three and a half miles, that’s not just in the parking lot,” said Sandoval. “This is in the village that is in the apartments facing the ski slope.”
When asked why the company kept the electricity on, spokesman Lynsey Paulo sent this statement in the weeks following the Zogg fire:
“On Sunday, September 27, 2020, at 2:40 p.m., the nearest PG&E weather stations at the intersection of Zogg Mine Road and Jenny Bird Lane recorded sustained winds of less than 15 mph and gusts of 23 to 28 km / h. H. Part of the PSPS criteria are sustained winds generally above 40 km / h and wind gusts above 45 km / h, depending on the location and the site-specific conditions such as temperature, terrain and local climate. “
These are not the conditions that the people of the hills remember from that day.
“When I woke up on Sunday morning it was very windy,” Zach McLeod told us weeks after his wife and daughter died in the fire. “I would say probably 35, 40 mph winches.”
“If you speak to anyone in this area, everyone expected the power to turn off that day,” said attorney Mark Potter, who represents the McLeod family. “They planned to turn off the electricity that day.”
PG&E spending priorities
PG&E resumed political donations from its corporate checkbook in 2020, despite U.S. District Judge William Alsup stated that security is a more important use of corporate funds.
After PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter over the beginning of the 2018 bonfire that destroyed the town of Paradise, the company gave $ 1.2 million to a mix of lawmakers, electoral groups and other political campaign groups.
Based on the published retail price of the PG&E wind monitor installed downhill from the Zogg Fire (the high-performance model is $ 1,200), the company could have bought 1,000 wind speed sensors instead of making those donations.
PG&E could have bought 377,500 of the monitors with the amount of money it wanted to pay as executive and employee bonuses in its recently closed bankruptcy process.
Alsup has not banned PG&E from making political donations or paying bonuses, but has harassed the company through both.
Taking the move to ban PG&E from paying shareholder dividends, the judge argued that in the decades leading up to the forest fires, the company took billions in profit that should instead have been spent on cutting down trees and improving maintenance .
Unless he tries to start PG&E parole over, the company will end parole in January 2022. At that point, Alsup’s responsibility for the company would expire.
Zach McLeod urged Judge Alsup to get PG&E shutdowns under control and do whatever is necessary to prevent more people from dying in preventable fires.
“I think that could definitely have been avoided, all of this could have been avoided,” said McLeod. “Nobody had to lose anyone.”
PG&E admitted to Alsup that the tree suspected of hitting its power line and starting the Zogg Fire “may have been identified (but not removed) for removal”.
The judge is trying to find out if PG&E contractors applied spray paint to the tree trunk to identify trees that need to be felled or felled.
PG&E also admitted to Judge Alsup that when it makes shutdown decisions for every square in its grid, it does not consider whether it has done the work of trimming and felling dangerous trees near power lines.
Alsup set a court date on Wednesday and planned to order the company to include pruning work in its decision-making process for shutting down power to the grid cells in its shutdown plan.
The company did not admit to starting the Zogg fire, but did spend weeks collecting evidence that was left after CAL FIRE released the crime scene.
PG&E even brought a helicopter to haul away entire utility poles and the remaining parts of the tree that were suspected of hitting its line.
“As someone who lives in the PG&E field, I want them to do a better job. I don’t want to stay up all night because I’m scared for myself and my community in strong winds, ”said Sandoval. “I’m afraid I understand the danger better than many of the people who work for PG&E.”
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