Thursday, February 21, 2019

Federal Judge to Review PG&E’s Wildfire Plan

By Hudson Sangree

California’s investor-owned utilities submitted enhanced wildfire mitigation plans to the Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday, as required by last year’s sweeping fire safety law, SB 901.

A federal judge said last week he’ll review Pacific Gas and Electric’s plan before deciding whether to impose more stringent probation requirements on the utility, which was convicted of six felonies stemming from a gas line explosion in 2010. (See Judge Postpones Strict Probation Conditions for PG&E.)

The utility filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last month, citing the more than $30 billion in claims it faces for Northern California’s disastrous wildfires in 2017 and 2018. (See Bankruptcy Only Viable Option for PG&E, Lawyer says.)

The PUC will review the IOUs’ plans and hold an all-day workshop on Feb. 13 — the start of a six-week process of weighing and instituting measures to prevent the type of devastating fires the state has experienced in the past two years.

Those measures include de-energizing power lines in fire-prone areas during high-risk weather conditions, according to the plans submitted by PG&E and Southern California Edison. Both utilities have been blamed for massive, deadly fires in 2017 and 2018. The utilities, in turn, have cited climate change as a major factor in the disasters.

PG&E’s wildfire mitigation plan includes enhanced vegetation management around power lines. | PG&E

“Our state is faced with an extended and more dangerous wildfire season that demands urgent action and coordination,” Sumeet Singh, head of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said in a news release Wednesday. “While California’s energy companies have a critical responsibility and role to play in reducing wildfire risk, we must all work together to keep our communities safe.”

The IOUs have had to develop annual wildfire mitigation plans since 2017, but SB 901 required them to provide more detailed safety plans and seek PUC approval for their proposals. (See California Wildfire Bill Goes to Governor.) Under the new law, the PUC has authority to pursue enforcement actions if utilities fail to comply with the plans.

Along with PG&E and SCE, San Diego Gas & Electric, CalPeco Electric, Bear Valley Electric Service and Pacific Power must participate in the PUC process.

Under Scrutiny

In PG&E’s case, Judge William Alsup, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, said he was considering requiring the utility to inspect its entire grid for safety issues and make repairs prior to the start of the 2019 fire season this summer, a plan he was at least temporarily dissuaded from by opposition from PG&E and federal prosecutors.

Alsup is overseeing PG&E’s probation in the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, which killed eight residents of a suburban San Francisco neighborhood. Jurors convicted the utility in 2016 of six felonies for failing to comply with safety regulations and for obstructing a federal investigation.

PG&E was placed on probation for five years. Alsup concluded in late January that it had violated the terms of its probation by failing to report a legal settlement for a 2017 wildfire in Northern California. He criticized the utility for its repeated safety failures and starting fires.

Whether PG&E’s fire mitigation plan will satisfy the judge or result in further probation conditions remains to be seen. Alsup said he’d take up the matter at a future date, still to be determined. The judge gave interested parties until noon on Feb. 20 to file comments with the court regarding PG&E’s fire safety plan.

That plan lays out a strategy of vegetation management, grid hardening and line inspections that goes beyond the measures PG&E began implementing in 2017 and 2018.

The company said it is expanding its power-shutoff program to include 5,500 miles of transmission lines and more than 25,000 miles of distribution lines in extreme-risk fire areas designated on the PUC’s High Fire Threat District Map.

The California Public Utilities Commission adopted its High Fire Threat District Map in January 2018. | CPUC

“Proactively turning off power is a highly complex issue with significant public safety risks on both sides — all of which need to be carefully considered and addressed,” Michael Lewis, senior vice president for electric operations at PG&E, said in a news release Wednesday. “We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more. We will only turn off power for public safety and only as a last resort to keep our customers and communities safe.”

The PUC in December opened a dedicated proceeding to examine the controversial practice of de-energizing transmission lines during high-risk periods, a practice that one commission staffer said raises a “range of concerns” for the public. (See Calif. Regulators to Scrutinize De-energization.)

Other measures proposed by PG&E include installing 600 cameras in high-risk fire areas and adding 1,300 weather stations by 2022.

SDG&E’s extensive use of cameras and weather stations — along with grid hardening and targeted power shutoffs — have helped that utility achieve one of the state’s best fire-safety records in recent years and have been cited by state officials as a model for PG&E to follow.

“SDG&E’s efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfire and enhance grid resilience began over a decade ago after San Diego experienced some of the most destructive wildfires in the county’s history,” the utility said in its wildfire mitigation plan filed Wednesday.

In its plan, PG&E did not say it would inspect its entire grid, as Alsup proposed, but that it would inspect 725,000 electric towers and poles across more than 30,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines in fire-threatened areas.

Disabling automatic reclosers, installing stronger poles and covering power lines — or putting some underground — are among the other measures PG&E submitted to the PUC.

‘Going Far Beyond’

SCE outlined a similar set of measures in its fire mitigation plan. The company proposed removing 7,500 hazardous trees, replacing conductor across 96 circuit miles and installing 7,800 fuses on unfused lines. It too plans to install additional cameras and weather stations as well as deploy “covered conductor in high fire risk areas” and explore “targeted undergrounding” of lines.

“Many of the ignitions associated with utilities are caused by objects that contact distribution power lines or conductor-to-conductor contact,” the utility said in a news release. “Covered conductor has proven to be an effective mitigation measure against these ignition sources.”

“We are going far beyond traditional good utility practices and incorporating advanced mitigation measures deployed in high fire risk regions around the world,” Phil Herrington, SCE’s senior vice president of transmission and distribution, said in a news release.

“This is an aggressive plan to protect public safety,” he said. “We are implementing a variety of additional tools and technologies to advance fire safety even further throughout our system to respond to the ‘new normal’ of year-round wildfire risk.”

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