‘Hardening’ gets a harder look

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

PG&E crews rehang power lines by what’s left of the Black Bear Diner on Clark Road the day after the Camp Fire devastated Paradise.

The death and destruction wrought by fires in Butte County and the Malibu area, along with last year’s deadly blazes in wine country, have brought a reckoning over the role of power equipment in setting off wildfires.

It is not yet clear whether infrastructure owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and by Southern California Edison was involved in the Butte County and Malibu fires; investigators are still working to determine what triggered them.

But with one in 10 California wildfires related to energy equipment, the state’s utilities have been called before regulators to show how they plan to ensure that their equipment won’t spark future fires.

Among the firms’ strategies: more aggressively clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, swapping wooden power poles for metal and maintaining a network of remote cameras to keep an eye out for wind, smoke and other dangers.

None of these or other fire-mitigation efforts will come cheaply. And consumers can be expected to foot much of the bill.

In September, Southern California Edison estimated that making its equipment more fire resistant will cost $670 million in the next three years, and the company is seeking the California Public Utilities Commission’s permission to fully recover that outlay through rate increases.

San Diego Gas and Electric has spent more than a billion dollars to fireproof its equipment over the last 10 years, long before the Legislature’s recent vote to demand it. And PG&E has spent $15 billion in the last five years to upgrade its equipment and make it more fire-safe, the company said.

Wildfire issues absorbed the state Legislature in its most recent session, with heated debates about how to hold power companies liable for damage their equipment causes when strong winds drape tree limbs across transmission lines, or high-voltage wires sway and cross, showering sparks onto a tinder-dry landscape.

The law that emerged requires the companies to provide the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates them, with specific fire-mitigation plans and to construct, maintain and operate their equipment in a way that minimizes the risk of catastrophic blazes. It’s what officials call “hardening” of California’s electricity grid.

The commission held a preliminary meeting with utilities in mid-November and will release a memo in December with guidance for the companies as they prepare their plans. The firms have until February to release their proposals, with the goal of having plans in place before summer.

Many of the approaches being discussed are not new, having been in place for decades as companies have tried to safeguard valuable equipment. The work has intensified, however, as California’s fire season has grown longer and more destructive.

Some examples:

PG&E, like most of the other companies, is expanding its weather forecasting, planning to add 200 weather stations this year along its 70,000-square-mile service territory. The data—readings of wind, temperature and humidity that provide early warning of high fire-risk conditions—is streamed in real time and shared with emergency officials and the public, according to Megan McFarland, a company spokesperson.

Edison has begun replacing older lines with ones that are more robustly insulated, and the company utilizes drones to monitor on-the-ground conditions.

San Diego Gas & Electric established a system of remote-controlled cameras, some with infrared capability, so the company can more closely monitor conditions on and around its lines. Those images, and even camera access, can be shared with firefighting agencies to improve preparedness.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to wildfire mitigation,” said Wes Jones, a spokesman for the San Diego utility. “How is weather … a factor? We are taking a comprehensive look at it. How can we harden our grid in the backcountry, where these fires start?”

Another method already in use is curtailment of power when fire threat is high. As a public-safety measure of last resort, that approach carries a host of sobering considerations, discussed at last week’s commission hearing. A representative of the city of Malibu said a power outage during the fire there cut off internet access and made it difficult for residents to keep abreast of emergency information.

In the face of strong-wind warnings, PG&E considered cutting power before the onset of the Camp Fire but did not do so. The company has not commented on its decision-making process.

A further solution, a pricey one: Dig trenches and lay wires underground, out of harm’s way. The San Diego power company has buried 60 percent of its lines, both protecting the lines from wildfires and ensuring that faulty lines don’t spark fires.

But laying underground wires is expensive and not widely adopted. The cost is determined by where the lines are and whether they are new or retrofitted.

According to PG&E estimates, it costs approximately $3 million per mile to relocate power lines underground and about $800,000 a mile to build new overhead lines.

Malibu Mayor Rick Mullen was critical of what he described as outdated power equipment and called for more underground lines. But one 2012 study estimated that installing underground lines in urban settings can cost up to $5 million a mile.

PG&E has spent $300 million since 2012 to bury lines, the company said. About 25 percent are now underground.

Regulators allow utilities to pass on a portion of such replacement costs, but the overall price tag for future fireproofing across the state has yet to be determined. Nor is it clear how much of the tab will fall to consumers.

Edison has estimated that the fire-safety improvements it has proposed already will raise residential rates by about 1 percent. That figure could change if the company revises its plans in accordance with regulators’ anticipated guidelines.

Meanwhile, CPUC President Michael Picker, during the November meeting, emphasized how little time state agencies and utilities have to craft extraordinarily complicated plans. He cautioned against high expectations from the process.

“What we need to do is avoid the worst imperfections, and be humble,” he said, “and also just remind people elsewhere that not everything can be cured here.”