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US Northern California Power Outages Could Soar If Aging Lines Aren't Replaced, PG&E Study Finds

02:00  12 december  2019
02:00  12 december  2019 Source:   online.wsj.com

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Sustained power outages caused by electric-wire failures in Northern California could double or even quadruple in years to come unless PG&E Corp. steps up its replacement of aging equipment, according to a utility-commissioned analysis.

PG&E’s current rate of electric-line replacement falls far short of what’s needed to prevent a surge of failures due to the effects of aging, according to the analysis by researchers at Georgia Tech.

The analysis suggests the current focus on upgrading distribution lines in areas of extreme fire risk fails to solve a more basic problem of age-related deterioration, especially in coastal areas where gear often ages faster. The analysis was released by regulators to The Wall Street Journal in a public records request.

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High fire danger in northern California has prompted PG & E to notify about 70,000 customers about possible outages . In a statement Thursday, it says it may proactively turn off power in order to avoid the threat of wildfires from sparking power lines .

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the parent company of California 's largest utility, plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid what could be billions of dollars in liability costs over the massive wildfires that have torn through California in recent years.

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If electric-wire replacement continues at the rate currently proposed by the utility, PG&E customers should expect a doubling of sustained power outages in 15 years and a fourfold increase in 30 years, according to the analysis by the National Electric Testing, Research and Applications Center at Georgia Tech, which did the analysis for PG&E last year.

To prevent this outcome, the utility would need to replace at least 1,200 miles of its oldest distribution lines each year.  At that pace, the utility’s distribution system would be completely refreshed every 67 years, the study found.

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At the current proposed level of replacement—about 100 circuit miles annually due to aging—researchers said it would take the utility about 230 years to refresh its distribution system. They assumed the typical electric wire has a useful life of about 83 years.

PG&E has been in crisis mode for more than a year after a series of wildfires that regulators attributed to the utility’s equipment, including the Camp Fire that destroyed the city of Paradise, Calif., and killed 85 people. Regulators this month released a scathing 700-page report alleging, among other things, systemic problems with how the company oversaw the safety of its oldest lines.

What’s significant about the Georgia Tech analysis is that it is in essence a call-to-arms from PG&E’s own contractors that the utility must act more urgently to prevent further deterioration in essential services in California, which already stressed by a changing climate that has increased wildfire risks. It also is the first known report to predict that the rate of PG&E-caused power outages in coming years.

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Understand when and why PG & E needs to temporarily interrupt power to perform maintenance on the electric system. Learn more so you can be prepared. PG & E must sometimes interrupt service temporarily to maintain Find electrical outages in the PG & E service territory. View or report outages .

Utility company Pacific Gas and Electric , or PG & E , said it was shutting off power to help reduce the risk of wildfires. Some of the deadly infernos that engulfed the state The utility said most customers can expect power to be restored on Monday night, with some outages potentially lasting into Tuesday.

In response to wildfires, the utility is replacing 7,100 miles of lower-voltage distribution lines during a 12- to 14-year period in high fire-risk areas. It said it expects to complete work on 150 miles of that total this year. In some cases, covered wire will be substituted for bare wire that is more prone to throw off sparks if it comes into contact with tree limbs.

But the fire safety work won’t necessarily result in replacement of the utility’s oldest or most deteriorated electrical circuits, since they may not be in these fire zones.

PG&E, in a statement, didn’t directly respond to the Georgia Tech study but said it has given power-line replacement in fire zones “precedence over many traditional reliability improvement activities because of the critical importance of fire risk reduction.”

It added that the company will continue to assess reliability metrics and make adjustments as warranted.

The utility is seeking permission from state regulators to spend $781.3 million on its power-line upgrade program in 2020, an enormous increase from the $26.5 million it budgeted for those replacements in 2017, according to a PG&E filing in its 2020 rate case at the utilities commission.

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In addition to replacing some geriatric lines, the money would help address a problem of “annealing” or a softening of metal wires that causes them to weaken and sag, sometimes dangerously.

In October 2017, two sagging PG&E power lines came into contact, throwing off sparks that caused the Cascade fire in Yuba County, according to California fire authorities. That fire killed four people, destroyed 264 structures and scorched 10,000 acres.

The public utilities commission is investigating that fire, and 13 others it believes were started by utility equipment, in a proceeding it opened in June. It could result in significant penalties, including for the “conductor to conductor” contact in the Cascade fire that utilities commission staff said violated a state law requiring lines to be safely separated. It is unclear, from fire incident reports, whether annealing was responsible for the line sag.

Across the U.S., replacing aged infrastructure poses a huge logistical and financial challenge for government agencies and private companies, which often wait until a structure or system has failed before repairing or replacing it. That approach can endanger public safety, experts say.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. It gave the nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus in the most recent report in 2017, unchanged from 2013.

The report drilled down with a state-by-state analysis of the condition of assets in 17 infrastructure categories, such as ports, dams, levees, water systems and energy networks. It assigned California an overall grade of C-minus but gave its energy systems the lowest grade, at D-minus, citing stresses from hazards including wildfires and aging equipment.

Write to Rebecca Smith at rebecca.smith@wsj.com

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