California’s review of wildfire mitigation plans will be a sprint

Dive Brief:

  • A technical workshop and pre-hearing conference were held Tuesday at the California Public Utilities Commission, kicking off a review of utility wildfire mitigation plans that are expected to be approved in May.
  • Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) filed additional information on their proposed plans, responding to a request from Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Sarah Thomas. PG&E will “continue to improve and evolve these programs” and may expand or re-prioritize work laid out in its plan, the utility told the judge.
  • The mitigation plans aim to implement SB 901, a 2018 law to address wildfire risk that added new requirements to utilities’ fire plans. But ALJ Thomas noted her concern at the pace of the proceeding necessary to finalize plans before the next fire season.

    Dive Insight:

    The judge addressed parties on Tuesday at pre-hearing conference, giving an indication of the expected pace.

    “I can’t possibly imagine an interim decision before a decision on the plans,” she said. “If we had more time that might be a prudent approach.”

    The pre-hearing conference was “primarily to deal with housekeeping issues” like new appearances and party statuses. Thomas granted party status to the California Large Energy Consumers Association and others, and denied a motion filed by The Utility Reform Network, for a hearing.

    There will also be no hearings in this case, Thomas determined; filed comments will make up the record. “I’ve never seen a proceeding on such a short time frame,” she said.

    The wildfire mitigation proceeding will address de-energization proposals to reduce risk, but the topic is more complicated and will be largely addressed in a separate proceeding.

    Intervenor comments are due March 13, said Thomas, limited to 30 pages. “Don’t use a lot of space in your comments for de-energization. … you’re free to do it but you’re not gonna get the maximum bang for your buck.”

    Utilities add details

    California utilities filed fire mitigation plans earlier this month, though the primary focus has been on PG&E. The utility has filed for bankruptcy as it deals with billions of dollars in potential liability related to recent catastrophic fires.

    PG&E’s mitigation proposal would expand the utility’s proactive shutoff policy, potentially impacting every customer in its service territory. The utility wants to expand its Public Safety Power Shutoff program to include all electric lines — both distribution and transmission — that pass through an area at risk of wildfire.

    Thomas had asked utilities for some additional information on their filings and specifically asked PG&E to “describe and quantify” the effectiveness of the mitigation measures it had proposed in its Fire Prevention Plan (FPP).

    In its response, PG&E told the commission it “does not currently have a prepared detailed quantification of the effectiveness of each the FPP plan component” and said it would take approximately two weeks to complete. The judge had also asked for more information on PG&E’s wildfire mitigation efforts that are planned for the next five years, or longer.

    In response, PG&E defined its System Hardening Program as an ongoing, long-term capital investment program to rebuild portions of its overhead electric distribution system. Last year, PG&E initiated construction pilots to “evaluate various overhead conductor and equipment configurations, including potential undergrounding, as well as to develop best practices,” according to the utility.

    This year, PG&E said it will begin the System Hardening Program with a target of completing 150 circuit miles by the end of the year. From 2020 through 2022, PG&E said it “forecasts completing work on 600 circuit miles per year, and complete approximately 860 miles from 2023-2028 in order to complete work on 7,100 circuit miles” within a decade.

    SDG&E had been asked to categorize its preventative efforts across timeframes. The utility told the commission that it “anticipates its initial Wildfire Mitigation Plan may be in place for 18 months,” and the wildfire preventative strategies and programs in its initial plan “are either already in place or SDG&E proposes should be accelerated or initiated.”