Public Utilities Commission demands wildfire plan from PG&E
PG&E and five other electric companies were ordered Thursday by the state utilities regulator to prepare detailed wildfire mitigation plans on a tight schedule for both the companies and the regulatory agency charged with approving and enforcing the plans.
The mandate, which calls for the 20-point plans to be in place by the middle of 2019, stems from a wildfire response law crafted as blazes were raging statewide in August. The bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 21.
“I am encouraged that there is some urgency to this,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, who served on the special legislative committee that produced the law.
Victims of the North Bay wildfires of 2017, this year’s fires and future wildfires that experts say are certain to come in an era of climate change “hope they treat it with urgency,” he said.
The five-member California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved an order Thursday requiring the state’s three largest power providers — PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — and three smaller investor-owned utilities to file plans to “prevent, combat and respond to wildfires” in their service areas by February 2019, the order said.
Following a 30-day period for an exchange of comments between the utilities and the PUC, the agency has three months to act on the plans, unless it orders an extension.
“All parties should be prepared to act on short deadlines and be as cooperative and forthcoming as possible,” the order said.
Wood said the requirement for annual wildfire mitigation plans was a “key element” of the legislation, and that he had concerns the planning process would “drag on” for three to five years.
The PUC also “needs to make sure the plans have been implemented,” he said.
The law allows the commission to fine a utility that fails to “substantially comply” with its plan, but doesn’t set any amount for the penalty.
The law and the PUC order spell out 20 specific elements that must be included in the mitigation plans, including a description of strategies “to minimize the risk of electrical lines and equipment causing catastrophic wildfires, including consideration of dynamic climate change risks.”
Plans must include vegetation management, which involves clearing trees and brush from around power lines, and shutting off parts of power systems during emergencies as well as notifying customers of the shutdowns.
PG&E has recently implemented a pre-emptive power shutdown program and has expanded its vegetation management effort.
Cal Fire has determined PG&E equipment caused 17 major fires across Northern California in October 2017, and in 11 of the blazes the utility allegedly failed to keep tree limbs clear from its equipment and follow other safety codes.
During hearings on the bill, lawmakers praised the San Diego power company for its high-tech approach to wildfire protection, including networks of cameras and weather stations. PG&E and Sonoma Water are establishing a similar fire-alert camera network in the North Bay area.
PG&E has submitted a wildfire mitigation plan since 2017, as required by previous law, and will augment the plan in accordance with the order, said Kristi Jourdan, a utility spokeswoman.
The upgraded plan will include cameras, weather stations and system improvements such as pole replacement and insulated wires to reduce the likelihood of damage from falling trees.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and communities we serve,” she said in an email, referring to PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area from Bakersfield to Eureka.
“Devastating wildfires driven by extreme weather have become a regular occurrence in California, and we must be prepared as a state to collectively confront the challenges of climate change,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.