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PG&E's Options Moving Forward

image credit: ID 65157171 © Wisconsinart | Dreamstime.com

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.

Henry Craver's picture

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 28, 2019 7:01 pm GMT

Henry, here's one choice that would finance all the transmission upgrades PG&E needs to make and then some: sell Diablo Canyon Power Plant to an energy company interested in operating a state-of-the-art nuclear plant for at least the next 20 years. The plant is worth an estimated $5 billion, and there are at least two energy companies in the U.S., and one overseas, which are interested.

That goes 180° opposite PG&E's plan of building gas generation to replace it. But there are millions of Californians, some of whose homes are burning down at this very moment, who don't think PG&E should have a lot to say about it. Especially, given the utility's plan is 180° in opposition to the interests of anyone concerned about climate change.

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Oct 28, 2019 7:42 pm GMT

Keeping DCPP operating and eliminating fires by burying electric cables - seems like  win-win for clean air to me!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 28, 2019 8:50 pm GMT

Is it possible to think that the mismanagement of PG&E and the understandable frustration (to say the least) CA residents are experiencing might be enough to convince them to reevaluate what they already thought they knew about energy and their utilities, perhaps an opening to reconsider existing nuclear?

Robert Magyar's picture
Robert Magyar on Oct 29, 2019 1:33 pm GMT

Perhaps it's a good idea for PG&E to raise cash by selling its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant but it might be a tough sell to local residents:

Diablo Canyon nuclear plant earthquake fault zone risks

Millions of Californians know of and have lived with earthquake risks for years but given the nuclear industry's history of high profile accident events, many will see it as a true Hobson's Choice.

It might also be fiscally prudent to reign in stock buyback programs of which PG&E has been doing for years; monies to buy back its stock to raise its value which could have been used instead for transmission upgrades:

2004 PG&E $1 billion dollar stock buyback

Quarterly long term history of PG&E stock buybacks

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 30, 2019 5:29 am GMT

Robert, the seismicity of the ground under Diablo Canyon had been studied more than any parcel of land in the world when the site was selected for its stability, and the absence of the type of ground movement which would threaten a nuclear plant.

Though there has been no evidence it's possible for an earthquake at that location to cause significant damage, it hasn't stopped frantic antinuclear activists from casting every local fault, much like the other thousands of others that criscross California, as a mortal threat. In fact, there already was an earthquake: in 2003, the 6.6 San Simeon earthquake killed two people and collapsed buildings in nearby Paso Robles. Diablo Canyon not only wasn't damaged - it kept generating electricity throughout. That earthquake, and stronger, were expected - and planned for.

Though members of "The Union of Concerned Scientists" might walk around the office in lab coats, the organization only recently found a Real Scientist to be its president. Because scaring people can be a lucrative source of funding (ask Greenpeace), they've been fearmongering about nuclear energy for decades. The irrational anxiety above, from 2013, is a prime example. The group was being forced into a corner by critics when one year ago they came out in conditional support of nuclear energy "coupled ...with strong clean energy policies." A scientist would never say that, of course, because nuclear energy is a strong clean energy policy. But last time I checked, less than half of "The Union of Concerned Scientists" had any graduate training in the sciences, and it was the kind of thing a pretend-scientist might say.

Robert Magyar's picture
Robert Magyar on Oct 30, 2019 1:39 pm GMT

Bob,

For me, your points are taken. Unfortunately, given human nature, the old saying, "Perception is reality" has in particular haunted the nuclear industry.

In my opinion and its just an opinion, the fact that nuclear was an industry borne in secret within the U.S. military wherein our leaders touted the ability to cause "nuclear annihilation" and "nuclear deterrent" which became common catchphrases within America. Along with a rather unfortunate phrase, "wiping them off of the face of the earth" when referring to nuclear bombs.

The commercial nuclear engineering industry inherited the military's necessary culture of secrecy, but then chose to treat the public at arm's length even as it touted the famous or perhaps infamous, "Too cheap to meter" and "Safe as a chocolate factory" mantras to an unknowing and a large degree, undereducated public regarding nuclear power.

This despite the fact several atomic scientists in the 1950s and 60s, a number inside of the then Atomic Energy Commission, the forerunner to NRC, were warning nuclear plants over 60 MWs in size could not be contained by physical barriers alone in the event of accidents.

GE and Westinghouse were right in the middle of this at the time.

Then a series of high profile nuclear industrial accidents and a lot of smaller ones which never made the public eye.

Then in the Iraq War, the media and a number in the military touted uranium depleted small bombs for that war to the public reinforcing in people's mind what they see as the deadly nature of nuclear.

Many people simply do not have the necessary cognitive dissonance to see nuclear as both deadly and completely safe at the same time.  The U.S. military consistently saying the former while the for-profit energy business preaching the latter.

Many people, landowners, in particular, believe they are purposely pushed out of hearing processes regarding nuclear site developments yet at the same time now realize they are mandated, without any choice to pay for nuclear sites both as taxpayers and ratepayers and we see they increasingly resent this. Payments they have to make even when a nuclear plant might not ever produce a single kWh.

We are not going run the world on solar, wind and batteries and those who believe otherwise are naive. However, this does not mean the nuclear industry will necessarily see success operating has it does or it is the only energy generation answer.

But don't take my word for it. If you have an interest see the BBC's Adam Curtis' "A Is For Atom" 1992 short documentary on the history of the nuclear industry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3i9WHHl3qA

If one assumes half of what Curtis reports as true, the nuclear industry still has a hell of a public PR and ratepayer problem.

Best regards,

Bob

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 30, 2019 5:01 pm GMT

Bob, I'd be crazy to consider the barrier of public perception a trivial one. But if solving climate change is  a matter of education, I can't help but believe a solution is possible.

Without getting into nuclear's checkered past or associations with nuclear weapons, the fact is nuclear energy (U.S. nuclear in particular), per unit of energy generated, is the safest form of energy in human history, and is the only clean energy solution of the scalability and scope to deal with climate change. But if we're going to allow irrational fear to rule out our most practical option, we're doomed to failure.

"This despite the fact several atomic scientists in the 1950s and 60s...were warning nuclear plants over 60 MWs in size could not be contained by physical barriers alone in the event of accidents."

If so, Three Mile Island proved them wrong.

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