San Diego Utility Faces Fire, Wind Regulation

By Published On: March 6, 2009

Burying overhead power lines, new rules regarding utility poles, and more stringent vegetation management were among the possibilities discussed during a recent series of workshops on preventing downed power lines from starting brush fires. “This is a gravely important issue to many citizens in the state of California,” said CPUC commissioner Tim Simon. “I think we have a situation where people are literally afraid of transmission and distribution lines and many of the pole-top attachments and we have to find more effective measures to prevent any contribution that we may allegedly have to the fire dangers that exist in our state.” During the series of three workshops held by the California Public Utilities Commission on February 4-5, February 17-18, and February 26, dozens of stakeholders, including representatives of San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison, participated. The workshops focused on proposed rules submitted by the CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division and other parties addressing rules designed to reduce fire hazards involving electric lines or communications facilities near electric lines. The sessions were prompted by the October 2007 and October 2008 wildfires in Southern California. In the 2007 fires, SDG&E was ultimately implicated in potentially violating transmission safety regulations when it failed to have proper clearance between two lines that arced during strong Santa Ana winds. That lack of clearance was faulted for igniting the October 2007 Witch fire, which caused loss of life, injuries, and burned more than a thousand homes. “The point of this (series of workshops) is to try to get some new measures in place--or clarifications of existing measures--to try to prevent fires from happening in 2009,” said Harvey Morris, assistant general counsel of the energy transmission section of the CPUC’s legal division. The commission hopes to have the new and/or clarified regulations in place by October, before the next Santa Ana winds start blowing, Morris said. Among the significant proposals floated during the workshops were ones regarding the possibility of more underground power lines. SDG&E officials proposed “undergrounding” lines in very-high fire hazard areas, and Edison said it concurred as long as the undergrounding costs are fully recoverable through rates and that they’re spread fairly among ratepayer classes. Regulators dropped the idea of undergrounding lines in the 1990s due to potential high costs. Then, it was more an aesthetic decision than one based on safety. Los Angeles County officials suggested an amended rule that would allow undergrounding projects to be funded through a combination of sources, including cities and counties, and that there be no penalty or reduction in funds from a utility if a city or county wants to contribute funds. And on another matter, that of utility poles, SDG&E proposed a requirement that poles be made of fire resistant materials in high/very high fire zones and that a professional engineer study and certification be required for joint use attachments on overhead structures on joint-use utility poles. Los Angeles County officials proposed requiring stronger poles, including fireproofing and wind-proofing poles when facilities attached to them reach a certain weight or number. They also backed replacing wood poles with steel or concrete ones in high and very-high fire hazard zones. The state proposed requiring utilities to notify pole owners prior to attaching or upgrading new equipment on utility poles and requiring pole owners to provide the results of intrusive inspections to all utilities with facilities on the pole. One of the issues garnering the most input was that of vegetation management in high fire-risk areas. SDG&E proposed several new and modified rules, including consideration of fire-mitigating factors when doing construction, maintenance, and operation in hazardous fire areas; adding a new definition of hazardous fire area; and increasing the minimum brush clearance in high or very high fire hazard zones. PG&E had its own suggestions, including a new rule that would give utilities the right to enter private property to perform vegetation maintenance around overhead high voltage lines. Edison suggested a rule to consider fire-mitigating factors when performing construction and maintenance in hazardous fire areas. Also discussed was the topic of prompt reporting and resolution of violations. Regulators suggested a rule revision to require utilities to promptly notify other utilities and pole owners of safety hazards encountered during inspections; require utilities to promptly correct safety hazards once they’ve been notified; and maintain records showing what corrective action’s been taken.

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