SDG&E turns in its wildfire plan for 2019 -- and it's different than other power companies in California
- February 8, 2019
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Feb. 07--As required by a new state law, San Diego Gas & Electric has filed plans to reduce wildfires for this year with the California Public Utilities Commission, the body that oversees privately owned public power companies in the state.
But while the state's other two investor-owned utilities -- Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric -- turned in wildfire mitigation plans that called for dramatic changes this year in the way they combat the growing danger of deadly blazes, the SDG&E plan did not.
That, a power company analyst said, was because SDG&E has already spent more than $1 billion -- funded by ratepayers -- in measures to make sure a repeat of the 2007 wildfires that ripped through the San Diego area does not happen again.
"SDG&E has sort of been ahead of the curve," said Paul Patterson, an analyst who covers utilities for Glenrock Associates, a research firm in New York City. "I think they've tried to address the issue (of wildfires) sooner than others."
SDG&E officials submitted a 160-page report Wednesday that outlined its plan that includes many of the practices put into place and programs that have been established in recent years.
"Our engineers, fire science and climate adaptation experts are continuing to develop and implement industry-leading wildfire mitigation tactics to help protect our communities," Caroline Winn, SDG&E's chief operating officer, said in a statement.
Measures already in place by SDG&E include:
* upgrading more than 14,000 poles from wood to fire-resistant steel
* evaluating some 463,000 trees located near power lines each year
* developing a network of 177 weather stations that provide readings of wind speed, humidity and temperature in fire-prone areas every 10 minutes
* hiring five full-time meteorologists using modeling to plan ahead for extreme weather and fire conditions, and
* adding 16 high-definition cameras perched on mountaintops to improve fire detection.
By contrast, PG&E and Southern California Edison each disclosed plans that spelled out a series of expensive plans aimed at reducing wildfires in their respective service territories.
PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy last week, estimated its 2019 plan costs $2.3 billion for its 5.4 million customers. Edison budgeted $582 million for its plan, which included inspecting thousands of miles of power lines and cutting down tens of thousands of trees in fire-prone areas.
In the aftermath of a series of deadly wildfires last year in Northern California, and Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Legislature in Sacramento passed Senate Bill 901 requiring the investor-owned utilities list their wildfire strategies and estimate their costs.
PG&E officials said they planned to shut down power lines more readily, as a pre-emptive way to reduce the possibility of a fire being ignited when conditions are more dangerous -- a practice called "de-energizing" lines.
"We will only turn off power for public safety and only as a last resort to keep our customers and communities safe," PG&E senior vice president of electric operations Michael Lewis said in a statement.
Last November before the Camp Fire broke out, PG&E officials considered shutting off power in some areas but did not. The fire ended up killing 86 people.
Some victims of last year's Woolsey Fire in Edison's service territory have sued the power company, saying Edison officials should have de-energized the power lines in the area because of dry, windy conditions.
SDG&E has been more assertive than PG&E and Edison to cut power when Santa Ana winds blow but the practice has been controversial. The company reported de-energizing lines four times in 2018 (once in January, twice in October and once in November).
Some SDG&E customers -- especially those living in rural and backcountry areas -- have criticized the shutoffs, saying the utility has been too quick on the trigger and complaining outages go on for too long and appear to be random. Some customers rely on electricity to run their wells for their horses and other animals while others rely on medical devices that need power.
"Turning off power in the interest of safety isn't a decision we take lightly," SDG&E spokesman Joe Britton said last November when the company de-energized lines to about 10,000 customers concentrated in East County during high-fire conditions. "It's a last resort during extreme situations."
The San Diego area escaped the massive wildfires that ravaged areas in the service territories of PG&E and Edison. But in December 2017, the Lilac Fire burned 4,100 acres in North County, destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 others. Forty-six horses died or went missing at the San Luis Rey Downs training facility in Bonsall.
What sparked the fire is still unknown.
Patterson, who has covered utilities in California for more than 20 years, said he was not surprised the filings from PG&E and Edison differed from SDG&E.
"With the most recent fire season, there's more concern obviously with a company like PG&E that has filed for Chapter 11 than with (SDG&E) which seems to have been implementing a pretty aggressive and thoughtful process to address somewhat innovatively what to do with the increased wildfire risk," Patterson said.
But county supervisor Dianne Jacob, a frequent critic of SDG&E who sent a letter to the CPUC last November year calling power shutoffs "completely unacceptable and irresponsible," blasted the power company's submission.
"The fact that SDG&E is still working to harden its infrastructure -- more than a decade after its equipment caused some of our biggest fires -- is outrageous to me," Jacob said via email. "While I welcome the improvements the company has made or promises to make, SDG&E has failed to move swiftly and treat this public safety issue with the urgency it demands."
The 2007 Witch, Guejito and Rice fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, injured 40 firefighters and forced more than 10,000 to seek shelter at Qualcomm Stadium.
SDG&E spent $2.4 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits related to the fires but has been fighting to have ratepayers shoulder $379 million in outstanding costs. The CPUC rejected the request but SDG&E has taken its case to the California Supreme Court, arguing the blazes were ignited by factors beyond its control -- including extreme Santa Ana winds and a tree limb that fell onto a power line due to high winds.
The filing with the CPUC did show that SDG&E is offering some new wrinkles in its wildfire management programs.
The company will roll out a program called PRIME that will spend as much as $21.6 million to replace up to 840 utility poles this year. It is requesting the CPUC approve as much as $55.2 million to replace up 2,040 poles in 2020.
SDG&E already leases a helitanker to fight fires on a year-round basis and the company plans to sign a one-year lease for another helitanker, a Sikorsky S-60, that can fly at night.
After establishing a series of Community Resource Centers in as many as nine locations affected by power shutoffs, SDG&E is considering creating additional sites where people can charge cellphones and get up-to-date information. The company is also considering establishing a grant program to help people buy portable generators during outages.
Sunrun, a residential solar, storage and energy company with offices across California, filed comments to the CPUC about de-energizing power lines.
The San Francisco-based company called on the commission to establish incentives to pair solar with battery storage so homes and businesses in high fire risk areas can keep their electric going during outages. Sunrun also called on the CPUC to explore the use of microgrids to maintain power when lines are de-energized.
The comments did not include any cost estimates for the proposals.
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