Recent wildfires prompted the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to investigate the potential responsibility of utility companies and issue new regulations.
Three companies, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Company(PG&E) and San Diego Gas & Electric company, were believed to have been the cause of over 2,000 forest fires within the last 3 years. These 3 companies, along with five others – Liberty Utilities/CalPeco Electric, Bear Valley Electric Services, PacifiCorp, NextEra Energy Transmission West and Trans Bay Cable – were all to be held accountable for their impact on the environment.
The CPUC has since requested that all electric companies create annual Wildfire Mitigation Plans to reduce the number of catastrophic wildfires in the state of California.
In October of 2018, the CPUC created the Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plan (SB 901), which imposed a number of new rules:
- Additional funding must be made ready to allow for the pre-deployment of the Office of Emergency Services fire and rescue and, in the years 2023 and 2024, for CalFire to improve forest health, fire prevention and fuel reduction.
- Any conservation easement purchased with state funds on or after January 1, 2019, if the land is found to contain forestland, requires the landowner to maintain and improve forest health.
- CalFire must create its own Wildfire Resilience Program in order to assist nonindustrial timberland owners.
- Until January 1, 2023, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) will not apply to federal lands to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfires. It will also not apply to the issuance of a permit or other project approval.
- Currently, the CPUC requires every public utility to construct, maintain and operate its company and assets in a manner that promotes and protects health and safety. The act requires utility companies to create a wildfire mitigation plan and send it to the CPUC for review annually. An independent evaluator must assess the utility company’s compliance with its plan.
- An independent third-party evaluator must conduct a safety culture assessment of each electrical corporation, the costs of which are not recoverable in rates charged by the electrical corporation.
- Any utility company that contracts private fire prevention services can only use them to protect its own utility infrastructure. The bill requires electrical corporations to reduce or eliminate the use of contracted private fire safety personnel.
- Utility companies that have electrical lines and equipment located in areas of significant wildfire risk must create wildfire mitigation measures.
- All publicly owned utility companies must submit annual Wildfire Mitigation Plans. They must then present each plan in a public meeting to accept comments on the plan and verify that it complies with all applicable regulations. All local companies must contract with a qualified independent evaluator.
California’s utility companies respond
As of February 6, 2019, all 8 companies have submitted their Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans. Each of these plans was scrutinized by the CPUC and opened to public questioning. As of June 6, 2019, they were all approved, as long as the respective companies comply with the reporting, metrics, advice letter and other follow-up requirements to make next year’s plans better.
These companies were threatened with fines if they did not complete their Wildfire Mitigation Plans, but no fines were assessed because they were completed on time. However, PG&E has been fined for causing 11 of 16 wildfires, with damage totaling at least $17 billion. These fires were found to be caused mostly by electrical lines making contact with vegetation, but some were also caused by faulty equipment creating sparks. With this as the cause, it’s not surprising that so many wildfires were started over the last three years.
The future of California’s power grid
In the past, CPUC did not actively monitor utility companies or fine them for not meeting compliance requirements. However, with the rash of wildfires, many of which are found to be the fault of electric companies, lawmakers believe these companies have not been maintaining their infrastructure properly. This has led to what seems like a resurrection of CPUC and a renewed stance on safety to avoid more wildfires. With CPUC’s intervention, there may be some helpful changes to California’s energy grid, all funded by the utility companies themselves. The companies face fines upwards of $100,000 for a single instance of non-compliance.
For this reason, utility companies are facing a dilemma. They need to come up with a plan to modernize their infrastructure without a cost hike for consumers, and they need money to build green infrastructure. But this is what the Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans are for: so that they can plan the changes their companies must undergo to comply with California law and safeguard the environment. If they achieve compliance, there may be a large reduction in California wildfires, saving lives and untold amounts of money in property damage.
These companies are ready to implement several ideas to reduce the risk of wildfire:
- Vegetation management. With planned inspections of all power lines and electrical equipment, they plan to cut vegetation back regularly to avoid contact with their equipment.
- System hardening. Power companies plan to replace bare overhead conductors with covered conductors, move equipment below ground where possible, replace high-fire-risk equipment with CalFire-rated low-fire-risk equipment, upgrade or replace transformers to run with fire-resistant fluids and install more resilient poles.
- Enhanced control. They plan to add remote capability to their reclosers. These are circuit breakers that shut down power when they detect a fault.
- Power shutoffs. Some companies plan to shut down specific power lines that are found within Tier 2 and 3 high-fire-threat districts during extreme fire risk conditions. Customers will be notified before these events occur.
There is a strong need to build a safe and effective energy infrastructure in California and throughout the United States. Failing infrastructure is a significant problem in every state, and more states should follow California’s example, regardless of wildfires. This very expensive problem demands a solution. A smart grid that relies on technologies such as sensors, automation and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication could be the answer. But who will invent it? Perhaps with the intervention of CPUC, California utility companies can find that solution and implement it, leading to a safe energy revolution across the country.
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