Facing new criminal charges for its alleged involvement in a massive 2020 wildfire, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) CEO Patti Poppe said the combination utility is making “profound changes,” such as burying its power lines to significantly lower the risks of future fires for both California and the company.

Zogg fire

Speaking on a 2Q2021 earnings conference call Thursday, Poppe reported that PG&E continued to reverse its losses from last year and is currently dealing with the Dixie Fire in two counties, for which the utility again has indicated its equipment may have been involved in the start of the fire that has burned more than 220,000 acres since July 13.

On Friday, the Shasta County District Attorney filed criminal charges against PG&E for its involvement in last year’s Zogg Fire. Poppe said that the San Francisco-based utility already has resolved civil claims with the county and “continues to reach settlements with individual victims” of the Zogg blaze, but “we do not agree with the criminal charges.” The facts in the case don’t support the charges, she said.

In response to the criminal charges and in reporting 2Q2021 results, Poppe stressed PG&E’s newly delivered pledge to bury 10,000 miles of the 25,000 miles of power lines it has in high-risk fire areas. The utility has overall 125,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines in its system.

“When we look at the tree density in proximity to our lines we know we must do something different,” Poppe told analysts on Thursday’s earnings call. “When I found out that we were spending $1.4 billion annually on removing trees, I knew we needed a permanent solution.”

It was PG&E’s ongoing work in rebuilding the town of Paradise in Butte County undergrounding all of the power lines in the area devastated in 2018 by the Camp Fire that “cracked the code on lower cost, efficient undergrounding” for Poppe and her work teams. Underground minimizes the need for planned power shutoffs and saves the trees, she said.

COO Adam Wright said undergrounding is a well known technique, but in this case “the scale and scope are truly unprecedented and extraordinary; it hasn’t been done anywhere else at this scale and in this terrain.”

Poppe said PG&E’s ongoing fire mitigation efforts are “taking more risk out of the system daily” and they will complement the future efforts for widespread undergrounding of power lines. “For areas we have identified, we think there needs to be permanent de-risking through undergrounding,” she said.

Communities and all of PG&E’s critical stakeholders have endorsed this move by the utility, said Poppe, who doesn’t think state legislation will be needed to implement the program in coming months.

As part of its latest fire-related financial disclosures in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Thursday, PG&E said it expects a loss of an unspecified amount related to the current Dixie Fire, and estimated losses of more than $1 billion collectively for the 2020 Zogg Fire and the 2019 Kincade Fire.

For 2Q2021, PG&E reported net income of $397 million (18 cents/share), compared with losses of $1.97 billion (negative $3.73) for the same period last year.