California’s three largest utilities invest billions into wildfire safety efforts

Published on February 09, 2021 by Chris Galford

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The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) filed plans with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week that will result in billions spent on wildfire risk mitigation.

At PG&E, the latest Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP) stresses three areas: reducing the potential for wildfires, improving situational awareness, and initiating electric system upgrades while improving support for those impacted during public safety power shutoffs. To restrict the ability for wildfires even to begin, the company will inspect and repair equipment, pursue aggressive vegetation management and improve both its grid technology and system hardening efforts. A mix of weather stations, high-definition cameras, and meteorology will allow PG&E to keep real-time eyes on any developing situation — and the conditions leading up.

“The last few years have demonstrated how California’s wildfire season continues to grow longer and more devastating. We are continuing to evolve to meet the challenging conditions to more effectively reduce wildfire risk,” Sumeet Singh, senior vice president and Chief Risk Officer at PG&E, said. “We are accountable to our customers and our communities that we are privileged to serve. The safety actions and programs outlined in our Wildfire Mitigation Plan provide details for our continued commitment to the critical work of providing safe and reliable service.”

The company plans to spend approximately $5 billion on its WMP this year and nearly $5.2 billion in 2022. Along with this will come a new Wildfire Risk Model to assess and prioritize safety work, building on the previous model and introducing advanced software and machine learning for predicting fire ignitions and spread.

At the same time, PG&E will also now dispatch customer alerts regarding the duration of any power shut offs and installed hundreds of devices and microgrids to limit the size and need for such shut offs. It is also improving the flow of information and support to those affected through community resource centers, a higher bandwidth website, and partnerships with local organizations to support disabled and aging populations.

Meanwhile, Southern California Edison intends to invest about $3.5 billion in its 2021-2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan, building on $1.3 billion spent last year. Its focus will primarily be on expanded inspections, maintenance, and data governance, though it also cites a rise in labor costs as affecting the amount expected to be spent.

SCE’s focuses in its current plan include refinement of high fire risk inspections, expanding system hardening activities through the installation of line spacers on long power lines susceptible to conductor-to-conductor contact through windy conditions, creating central data platforms for data analytics and governance, and improvements to fire agencies’ ability to detect and respond to emerging fires through satellite imagery and the latest aerial fire suppression resources.

Money will also go toward installing between 1,000 and 1,400 miles of insulated power lines this year, along with 330 fast-acting fuses. Among other things, SCE also intends to expand eligibility for its Critical Care Backup Battery program to all customers of its Medical Baseline program while encouraging more eligible customers to enroll.

Rounding out the pack, SDG&E plans to spend $646.5 million on wildfire mitigation efforts this year and nearly $670 million in 2022.

“We recognize that our wildfire preparedness efforts are not without significant impacts to our customers, who have shown incredible patience and understanding as we advance our collective goal to protect public safety,” Caroline Winn, CEO of SDG&E, said. “The pandemic and last year’s extreme weather events not only magnified our responsibility to bring forth solutions that help reduce those impacts, which we will work every day to do, but they also reinforced our commitment to build a more resilient electric system to safeguard our region.”

While the company has invested more than $2 billion in wildfire safety measures to date, in 2021, it will use funding to continue pursuing public safety power shut off reduction efforts and expand outreach to vulnerable communities. Enhancements to data collection and analysis are high priorities, as they will allow for better risk assessments and the prioritization of infrastructure hardening projects.