PG&E Chief Assures California The Utility Is Safer Than Ever

As California hurtles toward the height of wildfire season, the state’s largest utility says its infrastructure is safer than ever before.

(Bloomberg) — As California hurtles toward the height of wildfire season, the state’s largest utility says its infrastructure is safer than ever before.

PG&E Corp., which was forced into bankruptcy four years ago following a series of deadly fires caused by its equipment, has made great strides in reducing the risk of catastrophe, Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe said. 

“We know that the system is safer,” Poppe said during an interview with editors and reporters at the San Francisco office of Bloomberg LP. “We know that we’ve reduced 94% of the wildfire risk. That’s not a make believe number.”

Poppe said the risk reduction since 2017 was due to a number of factors, including strengthening equipment, stepping up inspections, making repairs and trimming trees. The biggest driver of the improvement comes from changing safety settings on power lines in high-fire risk areas so they turn off nearly instantly when struck by a tree or branch, she said. 

Poppe, 54, took over at PG&E shortly after the company emerged from Chapter 11 following the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 84 people and leveled the town of Paradise. PG&E pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges for its role in starting that blaze.

On Thursday, PG&E reported second-quarter adjusted earnings per share of 23 cents, missing analyst estimates of 26 cents a share. In a sign the company’s financial health is improving, PG&E said it expects to reinstate its dividend by its third-quarter earnings call. Its shares have climbed nearly 64% in the past year, recently touching a 52-week high. 

Poppe, a self-described “recovered climate-denier,” has been working to restore PG&E’s damaged reputation with investors, regulators and customers since then. Just six months into her new job, Poppe announced a plan to bury 10,000 miles of power lines over a decade after a tree fell on a PG&E wire and sparked the 2021 Dixie Fire in Northern California, the second-biggest in the state’s history, burning nearly 1 million acres. 

Read More: PG&E’s New Boss Is an Ex-Climate Denier Now Tackling Warming

Despite its efforts, PG&E still ranked last in residential customer satisfaction among large US West utilities, according to the latest survey from J.D. Power. “It will take time for customers to believe in us,” Poppe said.

An exceptionally wet winter in California has only served to delay the onset of this year’s fire season, which typically peaks in September and October. 

“We are less and less concerned about when wildfire season starts, and more and more focused on making sure we are prepared and ready with all of the technology that protects the people of California,” Poppe said in an separate interview with Bloomberg Television on Thursday.

The utility uses artificial intelligence in a variety of ways to detect potential wildfire threats and mange their spread, she said. That includes AI processing data from weather stations and cameras to predict risk level. 

PG&E also models how wildfires will spread, monitoring real-time inputs likes humidity, the moisture level in a certain region and wind speeds to predict a potential path. AI is also used to determine which areas are best to move power cables underground.

The utility plans to spend $52 billion over the next five years to bolster its power network against wildfires and further decarbonize its grid to meet the state’s 2045 carbon-neutrality goal.  


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