- The Energy Mix - https://www.theenergymix.com -

PG&E Must Answer to Federal Judge After Devastating California Fire

As California’s mammoth Dixie Fire continues to burn its way through northern parts of the state, a federal judge has ordered giant utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to explain its potential role in starting the blaze.

“At about 447,700 acres burned…as of Saturday night, the Dixie Fire is on track to surpass the size of the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire in the days ahead,” writes The Washington Post. While it is as yet unknown what started the fire, U.S. District Judge William Alsup has ordered the utility to provide information about a tree reported to have fallen on one of its lines near the original ignition point.

Alsup, who has made the news before for his decisions on climate lawsuits, issued his order as part of overseeing PG&E’s “criminal probation for felony convictions stemming from the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion,” notes the Post.

Burned to ashes in the current Dixie fire, which was only 21% contained at last report, was the small gold rush-era mountain town of Greenville. Five people are still missing in the wake of its terrifying incineration last week.   

About 25% of all available state and federal resources, including nearly 5,000 firefighters, have been dedicated to putting out this one fire. The remaining people and equipment are being divvyed up to fight more than 100 other wildfires now blazing across the country, “with new ones erupting in recent days in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Washington state, Montana and Wyoming,” the Post reports.

The Associated Press writes that California’s current fire season is “on track to surpass last year’s season, which was the worst fire season in recent recorded state history.” 

State figures show that, “since the start of the year, more than 6,000 blazes have destroyed more than 3,260 square kilometres of land—more than triple the losses for the same period in 2020,” the news agency adds.

In addition to creating dangerous levels of air pollution across a wide region (Denver’s air quality was ranked worst in the world this weekend), the California and Oregon wildfires are producing a “wildcard” strain on an already overwhelmed power grid. 

Utility Dive writes that the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is urging conservation in the short term, while also pondering the reliability challenges the state could face “as it moves toward its goal of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2045.”  

Heat and drought are a particular concern for California’s regulators, with the searing temperatures pushing demand up even as hydroelectric reservoirs are parched by the lack of water.

PG&E’s own hydropower fleet “includes 62 powerhouses and over 90 reservoirs, most of which are located in Northern California, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains,” Utility Dive says. “As of July 1, the area has received only 45% of normal precipitation this year,” bringing the utility’s total large reservoir storage down to its second-lowest level in 40 years.

As a result, “PG&E is forecasting only 45% of its historic annual hydropower generation.”