Pacific Gas and Electric Company, facing bankruptcy and possible court action for its alleged role in previous blazes, has submitted its wildfire safety plan to the California Public Utilities Commission.
The safety plan marks an expansion of enhanced and additional safety precautions PG&E began implementing in 2017 and 2018 to address the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires across its service area.
“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 San Francisco-based utility is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the wake of alleged liabilities for 2017 and 2018 wildfires. The company has been absolved of responsibility for one of the major blazes which killed dozens of people and caused billions in structural damage.
PG&E’s plan includes expanding and enhancing its Community Wildfire Safety Program to further reduce wildfire risks and help keep customers and the communities it serves safe. Ongoing and expanded efforts include further enhancing vegetation management around power lines, conducting enhanced safety inspections of electric infrastructure in high fire-threat areas, and a hardening of our electric system.
Also included in the 2019 plan, PG&E announced additional and enhanced safety precautions including the expansion of PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas – both transmission and distribution. While customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any of PG&E’s more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off for safety only as a last resort when forecasted fire danger conditions warrant.
“We know how much our customers rely on electric service. 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,” said Michael Lewis, Electric Operations senior vice president. “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.”
To be clear, the decision to initiate a PSPS is informed by local forecasts, so PG&E is not indicating that it would ever turn off power to all customers at once. Instead, due to the complexity of the electric grid, and the web-like connection between transmission lines, distribution lines and substations, there is a possibility that some customers outside a high-risk fire threat area, could have their power turned off based on the need to turn off a specific high-voltage circuit. The expanded program includes timely notification to customers of potential PSPS events.
The program will now include 25,200 distribution circuit miles, up from 7,100 last year, and about 5,500 circuit miles of transmission lines including 500 kV, up from 373 circuit miles of transmission lines at 70 kV and below, across elevated and extreme-fire risk areas, designated by the CPUC High Fire Threat District map adopted in January 2018.
PG&E’s 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan describes forecasted work and investments in 2019 to help further reduce the potential for wildfire ignitions associated with its electrical equipment in high fire-threat areas. It also reflects the unique size and geography of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area of which more than half is located in extreme or elevated fire-threat areas.
“Our state is faced with an extended and more dangerous wildfire season that demands urgent action and coordination. 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,” said Sumeet Singh, vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program. “The wildfire safety actions and programs described in our 2019 plan address the company’s unique and diverse service area and provide our regulators, customers and communities with transparency of our unwavering efforts to help further reduce the risk of wildfire and improve public safety.”
California faces an increasing threat from catastrophic wildfires, extreme weather and higher temperatures, and recent state and federal climate assessments warn the threat is only growing. Multiple factors contribute to wildfire risk across PG&E’s service area. These include vast tree mortality following a historic five-year drought. Fire season is now extended due to prolonged periods of high temperatures, extreme dryness, tinder-dry grass and record-high winds increasing the number of wildfires and making them more dangerous.
The 2019 plan addresses an array of wildfire risk factors through new and ongoing measures. Among the safety steps and actions include:
- Installing nearly 600 new, high-definition cameras, made available to CAL FIRE and local fire officials, in high fire-threat areas by 2022, increasing coverage across high fire-risk areas to more than 90 percent;
- Adding approximately 1,300 additional new weather stations by 2022, at a density of one station roughly every 20 circuit miles in high fire-risk areas;
- Conducting enhanced safety inspections of electric infrastructure in high-fire threat areas, including approximately 725,000 electric towers and poles across more than 5,500 transmission line miles and 25,200 distribution line miles;
- Further enhancing vegetation management efforts across high-fire risk areas (25,000 miles of lines) to address vegetation that poses higher potential for wildfire risk, including clearing overhanging branches directly above and around power lines;
- Continuing to disable automatic reclosing in high fire-threat areas during wildfire season and periods of high fire-risk and upgrading more reclosers and circuit breakers in high fire-threat areas with remote control capabilities;
- Installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered power lines, including targeted undergrounding, starting in areas with the highest fire risk, ultimately upgrading and strengthening approximately 7,100 miles over the next 10 years; and
- Partnering with additional communities in high fire-threat areas to create new resilience zones that can power central community resources during a Public Safety Power Shutoff.
The safety plan builds on PG&E’s comprehensive Community Wildfire Safety Program, launched in March 2018. PG&E has completed or is implementing these important safety enhancements and investments to help keep our customers and communities safe. Some of the actions taken include:
- Established a new 24/7 Wildfire Safety Operations Center to monitor wildfire risks in real-time and coordinate prevention and response efforts;
- Expanded its network of PG&E weather stations to enhance weather forecasting and modeling and better predict where wildfire danger could occur, with more than 200 new weather stations installed to date;
- Installed new high-definition cameras in high fire-threat areas in Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties to improve real-time monitoring across high fire-risk areas;
- Enhanced vegetation management practices to meet and exceed new state vegetation and fire safety standards that require greater clearances between trees and power lines across 25,200 miles of distribution line in high fire-threat areas;
- Developed a new program to proactively turn off power for safety, only as a last resort, when extreme fire danger conditions are forecasted (Public Safety Power Shutoff), and coordinated efforts with public safety authorities and other community partners;
- Disabled automatic reclosing of circuit breakers and reclosers on power lines in high fire-threat areas during the 2018 wildfire season, and expanded automation of over 400 reclosing devices;
- Initiated construction on a pilot resilience zone project in Angwin (Napa County), which includes infrastructure upgrades that enables the company to provide electricity to central community resources if power lines need to be turned off for safety due to high wildfire threats; and
- Held over 450 meetings with state and local community leaders and emergency response partners around wildfire safety and preparedness.