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Executive says PG&E is expanding climate change initiatives

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A Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) executive said the company is working to better address climate change and support communities impacted by wildfires through the expansion of initiatives to reduce the environmental impacts of human activity at a Monday event

Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief Sustainability Officer Carla Peterman addressed PG&E’s initiatives to build a climate-resilient energy network at a Stanford energy seminar. The company is concentrated on “delivering for our hometowns, serving our planet and leading with love,” Peterman said.

The event comes as the state faces an increasing threat from climate change. Utility companies are not exempt from the damage: “Utilities in California face an increasing amount of risk due to extreme weather events driven by climate change including heat waves, more frequent and extreme storms and wildfires, drought, subsidence, and rising sea levels,” according to the event’s description.

To work toward its new mission, PG&E is by offering grant programs for the development of climate resilience capability. One of the projects, for example, supports low-income communities of West Oakland as they meet needs such as cooling and health services during extreme heat events.

PG&E is also incorporating climate change forecasts into its daily planning processes. These forecasts are assessments that allow the company to look at the risk their infrastructure may pose to climate change. The company then works with local communities to make sure they can adapt to those risks, according to Peterman.

Some of the climate trends that California faces, and will continue to face, include increasing heatwaves, drought subsidence, rising sea levels and greater numbers of extreme storms and wildfires, according to Peterman. She said PG&E is working hard to tackle the issue of wildfires, which have hit the Bay Area particularly hard over the past year. 

“Eight of the 10 largest wildfires by acreage in state history have occurred in PG&E service areas, and seven of these fires have occurred since July of 2018,” Peterman said. “About 10% of our customers live in significantly high fire-threat areas.”

PG&E has faced sharp criticism for its contributions to wildfires, including its role in causing the deadliest wildfire in California in 2018. This wildfire, which killed 85 people, landed the company in bankruptcy for the second time in 20 years, from which it is still in the process of recovering.

PG&E is also focusing on managing vegetation that interferes with power lines, according to Peterman. This interference is especially dangerous during fire season when the combination of high winds, dry shrubs and hot weather can cause fires to spread rapidly. PG&E spends 1.3 billion dollars a year on managing vegetation, cutting more than 1 million trees annually, she added. 

To improve the process of identifying and preventing fires, PG&E has invested in a camera network for greater visibility, a weather station network, microgrid opportunities and building more underground power lines to avoid power shut-offs –– as this safety protocol has been considered disruptive in the past. One challenge PG&E has faced is accomplishing these tasks quickly while keeping costs low for consumers, according to Peterman.

PG&E is also advocating for legislation that supports federal investment in weather-related grid resilience, and Peterman said she is “thankful that some of these proposals have been included in the bipartisan infrastructure deal that passed the Senate.”

Despite PG&E’s new initiatives, however, Peterman believes that all stakeholders need to work harder in making adjustments for the future.

“We really need to be moving at a faster pace,” she said. “We have a sense of urgency, but we’ve got to translate that into even faster actions in order to meet our climate commitments.”

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Contact Camila at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.