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Calif. PUC signs off on wildfire mitigation plans for investor-owned utilities

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Calif. PUC signs off on wildfire mitigation plans for investor-owned utilities

California regulators on May 30 approved legislatively mandated plans aimed at preventing wildfires by cutting back vegetation from electrical equipment, installing insulated electric lines, stepping up inspections and setting up monitoring cameras, among other measures.

In addition to approving the individual plans, which were proposed by the state's investor-owned utilities, the Public Utilities Commission also issued an overall decision that addresses issues common to all the plans. Those plans are required by Senate Bill 901, a law the state passed in 2018 after devastating blazes swept through utility service areas, threatening the companies' financial viability.

The law states that the commission's approval of wildfire mitigation plans does not constitute approval for recovery of the costs associated with the actions outlined in the plans, according to the overall decision. Rather, that issue is a separate matter to be addressed in each utility's general rate case.

While utilities submitted high-level cost estimates, those were only to help the commission understand the overall magnitude of the wildfire plans and where the largest expenditures may occur, the PUC said. The law does not even allow the commission to establish that costs incurred will be deemed prudent if the utilities substantially comply with their plans, the agency continued.

PUC President Michael Picker said although such blazes can occur year-round, the legislature wanted the commission to approve the plans in time for the upcoming summer fire season. The plans approved May 30 are just the first of many future annual wildfire mitigation filings, he added, explaining that efforts will continue to evolve, with a focus on results — namely reducing wildfires — rather than on measuring how many wires are replaced or trees are removed.

Picker noted that each plan is different because it is tailored to the utilities' particular challenges, which can vary significantly due to geographical differences as well as the diversity of vegetation and climate across the vast state.

Decisions highlight some features of each plan

Specifically, the PUC approved PG&E Corp. subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s, or PG&E's, proposal to dramatically ramp up its inspections of transmission and distribution lines and substations at costs ranging from $798 million to nearly $1.4 billion.

PG&E said it will complete high priority repairs and other corrective actions it finds are needed during the inspections at a projected cost of $194 million to $371 million in expenses and $504 million to $1.25 billion in capital costs. Vegetation management makes up much of the costs in PG&E's plan, which proposes related expenditures of between $800 million and $1.3 billion.

In contrast, the commission's decision on Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co.'s, or SCE's, plan detailed few cost estimates. SCE is aiming to accelerate its "wildfire covered conductor program" and replace 1.5% of its lines in high fire risk areas with insulated wires in 2019 at a cost of $133.7 million, according to the PUC's decision.

Picker questioned how SCE will complete its plan to inspect 450,000 pieces of transmission and distribution circuit equipment this year and noted that the commission wants the utility to submit a report detailing how that will be accomplished.

The commissioners also approved Sempra Energy subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s, or SDG&E's, plan to continue replacing hundreds of miles of wires and poles in its service area. The utility already has completed 24% of its program, and it has 1,100 miles of high-risk conductor replacements to go. At the current rate of replacing 84 miles per year, it expects to finish the job in 13 years.

Picker said SDG&E clearly is ahead of other California utilities in its wildfire mitigation efforts, noting that much of the company's plan was put into place following 2007 wildfires that swept through its service area. The utility is switching from wood to steel poles as well as more than doubling the state's mandated 12-foot vegetation line clearance, he noted.

Commissioner Liane Randolph noted that the service areas of PG&E and SCE are much larger than SDG&E's territory, so those companies face a relatively greater challenge in implementing their plans.

Worker safety in addressing wildfires also must improve, Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said, pointing out that eight vegetation management contract workers have been killed in the state over the past three years in efforts to prevent utility equipment from causing wildfires.

In addition to approving plans for the state's three largest investor-owned utilities, the PUC also signed off on plans for three other utilities, including Berkshire Hathaway Inc. subsidiary PacifiCorp, and independent transmission owners Trans Bay Cable LLC and NextEra Energy Transmission LLC subsidiary Horizon West Transmission LLC.