PG&E's Options Moving Forward
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- Oct 28, 2019 6:41 pm GMT
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PG&E doesn’t have the best reputation these days. There are a number of reasons the utility fails to inspire confidence, but the single biggest issue is probably their role in last year’s Camp Fire. One of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in recent history, flames raged in Northern California for about 17 days, leaving at least 85 dead and $16.5 billion in damages. In May 2019, California state investigators announced that the electric company was responsible for all of it. Badly maintained gear had ignited the fire.
Since then, things haven’t been too rosy. Earlier this month, millions of Californians lost power to circumvent possible problems caused by heavy winds. Last week, the utility cut electricity for 2.5 million in Northern Cali, and announced customers could expect this pattern to continue for the next 10 years as the grid is hardened.
Some commentators say that needn’t be the case if smart technologies are deployed now. They point out that the grid is largely still analog, just like back in the 19th century. Utilities around the world have started using synchrophasors—sensors that detect if a line is broken and then shut off its power immediately so no fire is started.
Such clever tech certainly has a role, but long term PG&E will probably have to harden the grid by putting it underground. The problem there for the bankrupt utility is cost: PG&E boasts 81,000 miles of overhead lines and 18,000 miles of transmission lines and burying just 1 mile of lines costs around $3 million. Maintaining underground lines is also much more expensive.
It’s a daunting bill, but what other choice do they really have? All hell will break loose if the utility sparks another fire, possibly putting them out of business for good.