By Hudson Sangree and Robert Mullin
Pacific Gas and Electric proposed spending up to $2.3 billion this year on grid hardening and increased line inspections and vegetation management to prevent the ignition of wildfires.
The utility would also expand the scope of its public safety power shut-off (PSPS) program — the “de-energization” of lines during high-threat periods — to include its entire service territory of 5.4 million customers (16 million residents), meaning that even those living in low-risk areas could face shut-offs.
PG&E and California’s other investor-owned utilities presented their wildfire mitigation plans (WMPs) in person to the state Public Utilities Commission during an all-day session in San Francisco on Wednesday.
The IOUs filed written plans Feb. 6 in accordance with SB 901, which required more detailed fire prevention strategies after two years of catastrophic wildfires in Northern and Southern California. (See Federal Judge to Review PG&E’s Wildfire Plan.)
PG&E’s wildfire plan drew the most interest — and scrutiny — from state officials and members of the public attending the relatively subdued hearing.
California fire investigators last year determined the utility’s equipment sparked at least 17 of the fires that swept through the state’s wine country in 2017, and the company is under suspicion for causing last November’s Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive in state history.
Facing more than $30 billion in potential wildfire claims, PG&E last month filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In opening his presentation, Sumeet Singh, vice president in charge of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program, spoke about the “unprecedented level of risk we’re facing in the state of California” from wildfires.
“When you look at the last three years, nine of the 20 most destructive wildfires happened since 2015. And when you look at the associated damage, nearly 72% of the structure damage occurred within that time frame,” Singh said. He added that the volume of vegetation “plays a key role” in wildfire risk, and that vegetation “becomes more pronounced” in the forested regions of Northern California that constitute a large swath of PG&E’s territory.
Expected to cost between $1.7 billion and $2.3 billion in 2019 alone, PG&E’s plan focuses on preventing ignition and “rapid detection and situational awareness” after fires are sparked, Singh said.
He laid out a dizzying array of measures the utility expects to undertake, including identifying and removing hazardous trees along its 81,000 miles of overhead transmission and distribution corridors; clearing overhang from “the wire to the sky” in high-risk areas; examining the condition of transmission assets in fire-prone areas, including inspecting 685,000 poles; performing “enhanced” line inspections using drones; and adding 400 weather stations to the 200 it installed last year.
“It’s a fairly significant effort that we’ve undertaken,” Singh said.
In its “system hardening” effort, PG&E will seek alternatives for serving people in high-fire districts, including microgrids and battery storage; targeted undergrounding of lines; and rebuilding existing infrastructure with covered conductors and hardened poles — as Singh said the utility is already doing in devastated areas.
Singh also explained that PG&E will expand the scope of the power lines subject to its PSPS from the 7,100 miles in “extreme risk” areas to an additional 25,200 miles in “elevated risk” areas, leaving all the utility’s customers at risk for potential shut-offs — an outcome Singh said was highly unlikely.
CPUC President Michael Picker pointed out that San Diego Gas & Electric has developed tools for a more “granular” threat index to avoid the potential for such widespread shutoffs.
“We’re trying to get there faster and sooner, and that is the reason why we’ve doubled the weather station program,” Singh said. “We’d love to be able to get there this year, but I’m not sure that’s going to be achievable.”
Picker asked about PG&E’s expected timeline for implementing its mitigation plan.
“Do you think of it as three-, five- or 10-year plan?” Picker asked.
“Less than three years. Look at this as a short-term plan,” Singh replied.
Elizaveta Malashenko, CPUC deputy executive director for safety and enforcement policy, questioned the utility’s ability to meet that time frame.
“The plan is very aggressive, but it’s a plan we put together and have a line of sight into,” Singh said. “We have dedicated teams, dedicated individuals focusing on this work.”
Gabe Petlin, CPUC supervisor of grid planning and reliability, pointed out that PG&E currently has only 43 open positions advertised on its website, just two of which were for the more than 700 arborists that Singh said would be needed for the company’s increased vegetation management efforts.
Singh said PG&E is working with “contractor partners” to obtain the expertise. “It’s a model we’ve used for many years,” he said.
During the public comment period on the plan, Robin McCollum, a former tree clearing supervisor for Butte County, called vegetation removal “low-hanging fruit” for PG&E, saying that trees are “a valuable public resource that shouldn’t be squandered.” He also characterized PG&E’s plan for an additional 32 feet of ground clearance around corridors as “very extreme.”
“I think we’re at a point where we should have a paradigm shift in our thinking,” McCollum said. “It’s not the vegetation that causes the problem. It’s not the vegetation that’s the enemy or the target. It’s the wires, the bare wires, that are the hazard. … What we need to do, however long it takes, and at whatever expense … we should insulate those wires.”
SDG&E was the first of the three big IOUs to lay out its fire prevention strategy on Wednesday. State officials often cite the utility as a role model for PG&E and Southern California Edison to follow in preventing wildfires.
After a series of devastating blazes last decade — including the Cedar Fire in 2005 and the Witch and Harris fires in 2007 — SDG&E’s service area hasn’t experienced fires of that magnitude since, said David Geier, the utility’s senior vice president for electric operations. The CEO of SDG&E’s parent company, Sempra Energy, vowed 12 years ago that “we are not going to have any wildfires caused by [our] equipment ever again,” Geier said.
SDG&E embarked on a program to install hundreds of weather monitoring stations and cameras across its mountain-to-ocean service territory. The weather stations revealed wind gusts up to 101 mph in some locations when the majority of the utility’s grid was built for 60-mph winds, Geier said.
The utility is installing transmission towers constructed to 85-mph wind standards. It has undergrounded or covered many lines, and it inspects all of the 465,000 trees each year, he said.
“We probably know as much about trees as we know about any other asset in our system,” he said.
SDG&E also installed “sensitive ground fault detection” that can cut current by 67% on downed lines, he said.
“That’s the spark that causes the fire,” Geier said.
The company has tried to instill its safety culture company-wide, with every employee part of the mission, and consumers have been continually included in the effort through public meetings and outreach, he said.
“One thing is certain,” Geier said. “There’s going to be another fire season.”
SDG&E’s plan is being partially adopted by SCE, which is installing weather stations and cameras across its high-risk fire areas. The utility also has a program of emergency power shutdowns in extreme fire conditions.
SCE will spend about $582 million on fire prevention measures this year, but Phil Herrington, vice president for transmission and distribution, said there’s only so much utilities can do in the face of climate change.
“I think we all recognize this is not a utility issue. It’s a statewide issue,” Herrington told the commission.
SCE will deploy more than 800 weather stations and will have camera coverage of 80 to 90% of its service area by 2020, he said. It inspects about 900,000 out of its 1 million trees annually, and the utility established a central command post to monitor for emergencies “24/7,” he said.
“How far off are you from SDG&E?” Malashenko asked Herrington. Regarding SCE’s mitigation plan, she asked, “How much closer is it going to get you?”
Herrington replied, “We’re looking at making rapid catch-up.”