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California orders microgrid projects, approves wildfire mitigation plans


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California orders microgrid projects, approves wildfire mitigation plans

As firefighters continued to battle several new wildfires across Southern California, state regulators ordered investor-owned utilities to speed microgrid installations and the deployment of other resiliency projects aimed at helping the region cope with fire-related power outages and preemptive power shutoffs.

Adopting a modified version of a decision it proposed in April, the Public Utilities Commission on June 11 ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to get their projects in place by September so they are ready for the expected peak of the wildfire season.

The decision requires the large investor-owned utilities to deploy, or help communities in high fire risk areas install, independent off-the-grid "resiliency projects" so that essential facilities, such as emergency response, medical and water services, can continue to receive the electricity they need to function.

Under the decision, the utilities must expedite interconnections for microgrids, which have their own distributed energy resources, and other resiliency projects. They also must collaborate with local and tribal governments with better access to technical resources in order to rapidly develop and deploy the projects.

Of the three large investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, has the most ambitious small generator program. That utility will use temporary generation at safe-to-energize substations to support customers and communities that are affected by outages but safe from wildfires. The utility said it is preparing 63 substations to be connected to temporary generators, but several members of the public at the CPUC's June 11 meeting expressed concern that the diesel generators PG&E was installing near their homes would pollute the air.

PG&E also is undertaking a community microgrid enablement program, under which it will build multicustomer microgrids serving local critical facilities and customers with disabilities or functional needs that are not already served by other microgrid solutions. PG&E anticipates having 10 temporary microgrid sites ready by the end of 2020.

The CPUC said it rushed to complete the rulemaking because utilities in October 2019 mismanaged public safety power shutoffs, which are intended to keep electrical equipment from starting wildfires during periods of high wind and dry weather conditions, and it aims to prevent any recurrence this fall.

Assessments of wildfire mitigation plans approved

In separate actions, the commissioners also approved wildfire mitigation plans for the three large investor-owned utilities and several smaller utilities and electricity providers. The plans estimate wildfire mitigation costs at a total of $9.54 billion for PG&E, $4.5 billion for SCE and $1.34 billion for SDG&E during the 2020-through-2022 period for each utility.

The CPUC's Wildfire Safety Division staff basically said the plans are works in progress. Staff noted, for example, that PG&E has not clarified how it is prioritizing its initiatives, such where it is choosing to replace overhead bare wires with insulated ones and placing others underground.

"PG&E provides little description of how risk assessment and mapping are used to select mitigation measures and prioritize their deployment at the circuit or asset level," staff said.

PG&E was directed to update its plan in 2021. "Overall, PG&E does not demonstrate sufficiently that it is allocating finite resources to initiatives that most effectively reduce wildfire risk and [public safety power shutoff] incidents," the commission concluded in its resolution approving the safety division's assessment of the plan.

The resolutions do not approve each utility's wildfire mitigation expenditures. Instead, each utility will record the costs of wildfire mitigation in an account to be evaluated for cost recovery in future general rate cases, the commission said.

PG&E, SCE and SDG&E are respectively subsidiaries of PG&E Corp., Edison International and Sempra Energy.