PG&E, other California utilities file plans to invest billions in wildfire mitigation through 2022

10 February 2020

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USA – Wildfire mitigation has become a particular focus for California’s utilities, following destructive fires caused by their power lines in the last three years, which eventually pushed Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) into bankruptcy.

PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and SCE last filed wildfire mitigation plans with the CPUC in February 2019, and the latest round of filings lay out strategies from 2020 through 2022. The utilities have very different service territories in terms of topography and vegetation, and that informs the specifics of their programs, according to Herrington. One commonality, however, is a focus on reducing the impact of public safety power shut-offs (PSPS), which utilities use to reduce the potential for wildfires during risky weather conditions.

“[W]e are all committed to minimizing the impact of those on our customers and building on the lessons from last year, which was a significant one relative to PSPS,” Herrington said.

PG&E’s service territory includes around 5,500 miles of transmission infrastructure and 25,500 miles of distribution infrastructure located in high fire-risk areas, much of which provides service to the wildland-urban interface. In 2020, the utility is aiming to manage vegetation around 1,800 miles of power lines; inspect 22,000 transmission structures and 344,000 poles and harden around 241 miles of its system — a process that includes replacing bare overhead conductors with covered conductors, stronger poles and some undergrounding. The wildfire mitigation programs are forecast to cost around $2.6 billion per year through 2022, according to utility spokesperson Lynsey Paulo.

PG&E learned “some difficult lessons” through the 2019 safety shut-offs, the utility said in the plan, and in 2020 is aiming to reduce the number of customers affected by de-energization by a third. The utility is analyzing its transmission system before this fire season to identify repairs and vegetation management that can reduce the risk of them igniting fires, and investing in sectionalizing infrastructure that can make shut-offs more precise. PG&E is also looking into microgrids and back-up power to keep some customers energized during the outages.

“Our state is faced with an extended and more dangerous wildfire season that demands additional urgent action and coordination across many stakeholder groups to reduce the risk of wildfire,” Michael Lewis, senior vice president of electric operations, said in a press release.

SCE’s plan builds on its previous wildfire mitigation efforts, according to Herrington. The utility plans to invest around $3.8 billion to implement it. One of the components is “a more substantial commitment” to installing covered conductors than in 2019, he said. The utility intends to set up 700 circuit miles of covered conductor in 2020 —​ compared to 372 miles in 2019 —​ and have annual inspections of high-risk infrastructure, according to the plan.

Finding qualified workers to implement these programs could be a challenge, according to Herrington. This includes field crews but also engineers and other planning resources to actually scope and design the strategies —​ especially since all the utilities are pursuing similar plans. SCE is keeping a close eye on its workforce, and managing attrition.

And on the costs of the plan —​ which will be included in the utilities’ general rate case applications and other financing, like memorandum accounts —​ SCE is sensitive to the impacts of the work on its customers and tries to maintain affordability, “but safety was the number one priority here,” Herrington said.

SDG&E has invested more than $1.5 billion in wildfire mitigation measures since 2007, and its 2020-2022 strategy has similar programs. The utility intends to analyze PSPS-prone circuits to deploy more specific measures, which could include undergrounding, installing covered conductors or microgrid solutions. In addition, SDG&E is deploying drones to inspect distribution and transmission lines and will expand its vegetation management program.

“At its core, this plan is about protecting people and property. We are focused on how we keep our communities safe while reducing the customer impacts that occur during public safety power shutoffs,” Chief Operating Officer Caroline Winn said in a press release.

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