CPUC Must Decide on $3B/Year of Utility Fire Protection Work

14 Feb 2019

The staggering scope and cost of utility plans to prevent electric lines from sparking wildfires came into focus for regulators Feb. 13 during an all-day meeting.

This year alone the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities plan to spend about $3 billion to minimize wildfire risks in areas with elevated threats. That’s projected to increase to almost $3.3 billion by 2020, according to  wildfire mitigation plans required by last year’s wildfire bill, SB 901, which were discussed during the California Public Utilities Commission’s meeting.

However, it won’t stop there, according to Phil Herrington, Southern California senior vice president.

He told the CPUC that the effort utilities are mounting is “long-term” and cannot be expected to be completed in one or two years.

Elizaveta Malashenko, CPUC enforcement and safety division director, acknowledged the utility safety plans will have to be adjusted based on experience as they’re carried out. That’s because utilities and regulators are essentially attempting to deal with the so-called “new normal,” namely, fires exacerbated by climate change.

To put the plans together, utilities relied in part on what their counterparts have done in Australia, which has been plagued by drought and massive fires for years.

Despite their massive nature, CPUC President Mike Picker said the commission is on a fast track to approve the plans, with final action expected in May.

While the magnitude of the plans was impressive, there was some skepticism at this week’s meeting.

For instance, Marcel Hawiger, attorney for The Utility Reform Network, questioned how much their individual measures actually would reduce the risk of wildfires. There were also questions about redundancy.

The plans have risk assessment sections. They are based on historical analyses and assemblages of measures utilities believe may have prevented past fires had they been in place.

Once the blueprints are approved, utilities will launch their massive work plans, which will involve both capital improvements and ongoing expenditures.

Among the measures included in the plans are:

  • Hardening the grid with both insulated conductors and stronger wires so power lines are not as likely to spark fires;
  • Placing some lines in selected areas underground;
  • More aggressive clearing of trees and vegetation along thousands of miles of distribution and transmission lines;
  • Installing weather stations and cameras throughout the state to gauge wind conditions and spot wildfires in remote areas early;
  • Retrofitting power lines with new circuit breakers and automated controls that can turn off power in areas where winds are high;
  • Alerting communities of power shutoffs;
  • Providing backup power in communities where power is turned off to keep water flowing, residents’ cell phones charged, and medical equipment running; and
  • Paying for private firefighters to be at the ready.

Utility representatives who presented the plans this week to the CPUC said it would take at least two to three years to harden systems to minimize fire risk and get equipment and systems in place to mitigate the impacts of power shutoffs when winds blow.

Meanwhile, more aggressive vegetation management, including removing trees as far as 200 feet from power lines and topping trees in neighborhoods where distribution lines run, will essentially become permanent programs. Almost 400,000 trees are to be removed this year under the utility plans.

PG&E, for instance, plans to employee an army 3,500 tree trimmers and spend $186 million a year by 2020 for targeted tree species work over an eight-year period to remove Oaks and other trees located largely along its distribution lines.

Overall, it expects that it initially will need as many as 5,500 workers, plus managers and consultants, to carry out its plan, said Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program.

He pledged PG&E’s bankruptcy proceeding would not impede the utility in carrying out the plan.

—William J. Kelly

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