Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Wildfires Reshaping Regulator’s Role, CPUC Chief Says

By Hudson Sangree

California’s Public Utilities Commission has increasingly focused on wildfire prevention as electric utilities have been blamed for a series of devastating blazes in recent years, the commission’s president told state lawmakers Tuesday.

CPUC Michael Picker California Wildfires

Picker | © RTO Insider

CPUC President Michael Picker said the commission’s role had shifted significantly from economic regulation to fire safety during years of high temperatures and low humidity “that result in intense fires with 145-mph winds.”

He and others called such conditions the “new normal” in California.

Picker made his comments before a joint committee of state senators and assembly members tasked with ironing out differences in SB 901, which deals with climate change, wildfire prevention and the legal liability of the state’s three investor-owned utilities: Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Passed by the State Senate in June, the bill would require a utility’s wildfire mitigation plan to describe what factors it will consider when determining whether to de-energize lines in the face of fire danger and include procedures for notifying affected customers. (See Calif. Senate OKs Utility Wildfire Cost Recovery.) The mitigation plans are subject to CPUC approval.

The hearing was one of several called to draft a workable bill before the legislature adjourns its two-year session Aug. 31, when the bill would otherwise die.

The conference committee’s first hearing was held July 25, when one of its co-chairmen, Sen. Bill Dodd (D), said he was primarily concerned with the safety of residents after hundreds in his Napa County district lost their homes, and some were killed, in the catastrophic wine country fires of 2017.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) probes have blamed 16 of last year’s Northern California fires on “electric power and distribution lines, conductors and the failure of power poles” owned by PG&E.

The nearly 52,000-acre Atlas Fire in Napa, for example, started when a tree limb and a falling tree came into contact with PG&E power lines, Cal Fire said in a June statement. That fire killed six residents and destroyed 783 structures.

PG&E last quarter took a $2.5 billion pre-tax charge for third-party claims related to 14 of the fires.

CPUC Michael Picker California Wildfires

Wildfires, the Atlas Fire, made for a smokey San Francisco sunrise in October 2017 | Bob Dass via Creative Commons

Opening the July 25 hearing, Dodd said the state needs greater regulation of line maintenance, including vegetation removal, inspection and power shutdowns during extreme weather conditions, “so power lines don’t start fires.”

He placed part of the blame on the CPUC, alleging lax oversight.

“That means better utility planning and greater accountability for those who operate the grid, including checking compliance before a fire,” Dodd said on the dais in July. “That’s an area where the CPUC has done quite poorly regulating utilities and ensuring public safety.”

Testifying at the same hearing, Picker said the loss of life and homes from wildfires had been keeping him up nights, though he hadn’t expected fire-prevention to be a major part of his job.

“I have to say that fires are not something I thought I would deal with when I came to the Public Utilities Commission. But it’s obvious they are becoming a bigger and more dramatic issue here in the state of California.”

The CPUC in December approved more stringent wildfire standards for utilities, creating a “high fire-threat” district where correction of fire hazards is to be prioritized through improved vegetation management and increased wire-to-wire clearances. (See CPUC Targets Wildfires, Multifamily Solar, RMRs.)

The next hearing on SB 901 is scheduled for Aug. 9, when the subject will be the liability of investor-owned utilities for the destruction of private property caused by wildfires.