Regulators Grapple with Growing Fire Dangers

1 Feb 2018

How to reduce the risk of more frequent and intense wildfires in the state, with a worrisome number sparked by utility equipment, was the subject of a Jan. 31 California Public Utilities Commission meeting attended by all five commissioners.

“The ferocity of events we face outstrips our resources, policies and preparation,” warned Mike Picker, CPUC president, during the all day en banc hearing. The meeting included officials from CalFire, the Office of Emergency Services, and the three investor-owned utilities.

Picker noted that the commission was working with fire safety agencies to better understand vulnerabilities of utility infrastructure, including those in high-threat fire regions that face ferocious seasonal wind storms.

The goal of the commission and fire agencies is to figure out best practices for reducing fire impacts-from improving interagency communication to establishing protocols for when utilities de-energize threatened power lines and replacing wooden poles with steel ones.

Fires are exponentially worse in the state because of climate change, a long drought, excess dead trees and vegetation fuel.

The most recent examples are the devastating fires in Northern California in October and then again in Southern California in December and January.

For San Diego Gas & Electric, fires are the number one risk, said David Geier, the utility’s senior vice president of electric operations.

The CPUC president pointed out that fire risks are exacerbated because more than 4 million people have moved into high fire threat areas. “There is a central conflict with the increased risk and meeting customers’ needs for electricity and telecommunications.”

In addition, seasonal power outages from fires in these high threat areas appear to be leading homeowners to install backup generation. That can worsen fire dangers, including from the transportation of fuels to backup systems.

Picker also posed the question of whether other ratepayers should pick up the tab for fire damage in these high-threat areas in place of the local landowners.

According to Elizaveta Malashenko, CPUC safety and enforcement division director, the two top causes of ignition are trees and branches blowing into power lines and the failure of utility infrastructure. That is despite the fact that California has the strictest utility vegetation management and clearance standards in the nation.

“There is still room for improvement,” pointed out, Stephen Cieslewicz, utility vegetation management expert.

He and Malashenko noted that smart grid equipment can help reduce the impacts and risk of fires.

Joe Tyler, CalFire deputy director of fire protection, responded that more vegetation clearance around power and telecommunication lines is needed.

“We strongly suggest getting wider corridors for power lines,” added Kim Zagaris, Office of Emergency Services fire and rescue chief.  Zagaris also called for faster and better notification of fire threats.

He further pointed out problems caused by the shortage of local responders, as well as decline in the number of staffed fire lookouts. Zagaris called for more real time monitoring of fires using cameras and/or crews on the ground.

Daniel Berlant, CalFire assistant deputy director of planning, risk analysis, & investigations, noted the need for “solid communication between utilities and first responders and notification” to his agency.  That includes when utilities shut off the power to lines in or near big burns.

Malashenko agreed, noting the need for “a lot more situational awareness and analytics to be built into better manage distribution circuits.”

A key tool for utilities to manage fire dangers is de-energizing power lines. However, it can be a double-edged sword because of risks and complaints of blackouts from homeowners and businesses, including the inability to communicate if cell phone batteries need charging.

Whether and when to cut off power is a judgment call that can later be questioned. In addition, regulators do not know how those calls are made. “It’ a very real time decision done at the complete discretion of operator to ensure safety,” Picker said.

Safety experts emphasized the need, for instance, for water utilities that supply water for firefighting to develop backup power generation capabilities so they can continue to pressurize supply pipes when power is shut off.

Commissioner Carla Peterman noted that installing battery storage systems could be helpful in fire prone areas that face intermittent power cutoffs when high winds blow.

Recommendations for the CPUC and safety agencies to reduce the risk of fire threats to people, property and the environment include:

  • Updating manuals for utility best practices, including in the areas of vegetation and fuels reduction, as well as preventing sparks from utility equipment, including from bulldozers and towed trailers;
  • Setting clear criteria for de-energizing threatened lines;
  • Crafting science-based requirements to achieve dramatically improved results and significant cost reduction to ratepayers; and
  • Engaging and educating local communities.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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