California Utilities Look to Spend $10B Reducing Threat of Grid-Sparked Fires

California’s big three investor-owned utilities want to invest
more than $10 billion over the next three years on reducing the
threat of wildfires caused by their power grids. Now it’s up to
state regulators to decide which parts of their plans will move
forward. 

On Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California
Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric filed wildfire mitigation
plans with the California Public Utilities Commission, laying out
their three-year plans for preventing grid-caused wildfires where
possible, and limiting their damage when they do occur. 

The three-year plans are a sequel to the
2019 wildfire mitigation plans
each utility submitted early
last year. The plans included a major increase in tree-clearing
and grid-hardening work, along with technologies like grid
sectionalizing equipment, weather stations and mountaintop cameras,
and other tools for preventing grid failures from sparking
wildfires during times of high winds and hot temperatures. 

The plans also encompass the controversial step of public safety
power shutoff (PSPS) events, like
PG&E’s multi-day blackouts
that left millions without
power this fall, or the much smaller outages conducted by SCE and
SDG&E over the past year. 

The CPUC largely approved last year’s plans, and could be
expected to move quickly to approve spending on critical fire
prevention activities in advance of this year’s fire season. But it
has also released a scathing report of PG&E’s grid maintenance
failures leading up to the 2018 Camp Fire, and is investigating its
PSPS plans after its poorly-executed blackouts this fall,
indicating that PG&E’s plan will come under tight scrutiny.

PG&E: playing catch-up

PG&E’s wildfire mitigation plan is by far the most
expensive of the three, with an estimated cost of $2.6 billion per
year, or $7.8 billion in total. The utility, which is struggling
to emerge
 from bankruptcy protection by June to gain access to
the state’s $21 billion wildfire insurance fund, serves a larger
and more mountainous and forested territory than SCE and SDG&E.
It’s also under the tightest scrutiny from regulators and the
public, given its role in the state’s deadly wildfire to date,
the Nov. 2018 Camp Fire, and its poorly executed PSPS events last
autumn. 

PG&E has been working at a breakneck pace to inspect power
lines and poles, repair and replace worn equipment, and clear
vegetation in high fire threat districts. But a lack of
tree-trimming workers to take on the massive scope of its needed
improvements have prevented it from moving as fast as it needs
to.

Like its fellow utilities, PG&E will use up most of its
multi-billion dollar budget on these kinds of improvements. This
year alone, it hopes to clear vegetation from about 1,800 miles of
power lines; inspect 22,000 transmission structures and 344,000
distribution poles; and harden around 241 miles of grid. Much of
this work involves so-called “covered conductors,” or covering
bare overhead wires with plastic sheaths to prevent tree limb
contact that can spark fires. Burying power lines, considered the
safest option, is prohibitively expensive in all but the most
pressing areas. 

PG&E has also installed hundreds of weather sensors and
cameras to detect grid failures and fires in real time, building on
the work done by SDG&E over the past decade. While the utility
has reached multi-billion
dollar settlements
 to pay fire victims, insurers and local
governments, any fires started since its January 2019 bankruptcy
filing would have to be borne directly — a threat that gives
PG&E a hefty incentive to not cause any more fires, no matter
the cost. 

But PG&E faces equal pressure to prevent a repeat of this
autumn’s massive fire-prevention power outages, or at the very
least, to limit their scope. Sectionalizing gear such as reclosers,
relays and switches can allow the grid to automatically reroute
power around grid pathways that have been de-energized to prevent
fires, or give grid operators more flexibility in restoring power
when the threats have subsided. 

PG&E deployed about 160 sectionalizing devices last year,
and noted that they helped restore
about 48,000 customers
 of the nearly 700,000 that lost power
in its October 9-11 blackout. Its new plan calls for installing 592
automated devices to better reconfigure the grid during PSPS
events, as well as 23 switches to its high-voltage transmission
system. 

SDG&E: more of the same


SDG&E has pioneered
 much of the state-of-the-art in
utility wildfire mitigation, with more than $1.5 billion invested
since deadly fires in 2007. Its new plan largely calls for
expanding on the same kinds of investments, along with a more
finely automated system for limiting outages at the distribution
circuit level. 

SDG&E serves a much smaller territory than PG&E and SCE,
but it includes remote communities served by power lines crossing
tinder-dry mountains and steep valleys. To manage this challenge,
SDG&E has invested in an in-house meteorology team,
state-of-the-art weather forecasting and vegetation management
technology, and a fire-prevention power outage scheme that relies
on strategically deployed grid sectionalizing gear to limit the
scope of affected communities, and a hefty outreach and support
system for those that must be denied power until weather conditions
have improved.  

SDG&E also plans to make use of the massive quantities of
data it’s collected over the years to tighten its PSPS protocols
around fine locational differences. This kind of big data analysis
could help it more accurately forecast wind speeds from canyon to
canyon, along with the “fuel loading” of the underlying
vegetation based on the past year’s rainfall and temperature
patterns.  

SCE: a focus on grid hardening

SCE’s wildfire history falls somewhere between PG&E and
SDG&E, but more closely to the latter utility. While SCE was
found responsible for causing the Nov. 2018 Woolsey fire, and
agreed to pay $360 million to pay the damages it caused, it doesn’t
have nearly the same record of safety lapses and disasters as does
PG&E. Its service territory is also smaller and less
challenging than PG&E’s, though it does include mountain
ranges and deserts subject to high winds and hot, dry
conditions. 

SCE was able to limit the scope of fire-prevention outages last
fall to about 80,000 customers at its peak, even as firefighters
battled blazes in the affected region, in part through using
existing grid automation and sectionalizing capabilities. It has
also completed deploying 161 high-definition cameras to cover
nearly 90 percent of its high fire risk areas, and expects to add
more than 1,000 weather stations by 2022 to the 482 it has already
deployed. 

SCE’s new plan is expected to cost $3.8 billion, much of it
tied up in vegetation clearing and grid hardening. But it’s also
asking the CPUC for permission to add new technologies and data
analytics capabilities to its roster. Some of them are aimed at
catching grid faults in the milliseconds when they’re happening,
like its Open Phase Detection (OPD) pilot project, which is
testing technology to sense and de-energize low-voltage power lines
before they hit the ground. 

Other technologies are aimed at crunching data to predict
faults, such as the Distribution Fault Anticipation (DFA)
technology it’s evaluating, or tapping new sources of data from
the grid itself, like Early Fault Detection (EFD) technology that
can detect incipient grid failures from the radio frequencies
emitted by grid equipment.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
California Utilities Look to Spend B Reducing Threat of Grid-Sparked Fires