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Murkowski: Fires, blackouts a 'developing country' risk for California, US

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A firefighter sprays water on a leveled home in San Bernardino, Calif., in October 2019.

Source: AP Photo

If established as the "new normal," California's unprecedented precautionary blackouts to prevent power lines from sparking further devastating wildfires pose enormous risks for the nation's largest state economy, top U.S. lawmakers and climate experts cautioned.

"One would expect to see such living conditions in a developing county, not in some of the most populated and prosperous places in the United States. And certainly not in a state with some of the highest electricity prices in the nation," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a Dec. 19 hearing on the impact of wildfires on grid reliability.

But the challenges are "not limited to California," Murkowski added, pointing to more than 270 blazes nationwide linked to electric infrastructure in 2017 and 2018 alone.

Particularly in the West, the combination of climate change, drought, insect infestation, insufficient forest management, aging electric infrastructure and the growth of communities into densely forested areas has elevated threats to a whole new level, the senator said.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s, or PG&E's, preventative outages in Northern and Central California in 2019 likely cost its customers more than $10 billion, estimated Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. That is equal to 10% of the state's overall economic growth this year, Wara said.

"This is not just an issue for rural or remote parts of California, but really directly impacts millions of people in the metro areas in California as well," Wara told senators.

'Risk will continue to worsen'

Testifying before the panel, Bill Johnson, president and CEO of PG&E's parent company, PG&E Corp., said it was difficult to pinpoint just how long the state's largest utility could continue to rely on widespread power cuts for public safety.

"For us in Northern California, it will take us probably five years to get to the point where we can largely eliminate this tool," Johnson said. By improving its ability to predict and prevent wildfires with technology, Johnson said PG&E should be able to shorten and reduce the number of blackouts over the next couple of years.

"But the climate change and the weather change is dramatic enough that I don't think we will see the end of it for some period of time," the CEO added.

As PG&E struggles to improve its operations and modernize its distribution and transmission infrastructure, the fire risk in its 70,000-square-mile service area is only getting worse.

"Just seven years ago, 15% of PG&E's service area was designated as having an elevated wildfire risk. That number is over 50% today, and it will continue to grow," Johnson said.

That means over 30,000 miles of PG&E's assets are exposed to a higher wildfire risk, Johnson added in written testimony. "This risk will continue to worsen over time," the CEO said.

Johnson recognized PG&E's own part in igniting a series of deadly and devastating wildfires in recent years that landed the utility and its holding company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, saddled with at least $25.5 billion in wildfire liabilities detailed in three recent settlements with victims.

"PG&E is deeply sorry for the role our equipment had in some of those fires and the losses that occurred because of them, and we are taking action to prevent it from ever happening again," the CEO said.

One of the measures PG&E is undertaking is a potentially vast expansion of microgrids that could keep communities energized during system outages, including through a request for offers issued in December.

PG&E's recommendations

Rather than dwell on the past, Murkowski said the federal government and private industry must work together "to harden our energy infrastructure and improve the resiliency of our grid in high fire-risk areas during these extreme weather conditions."

Johnson, who was previously head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, had several recommendations for Congress.

Those included expanding federal programs to provide low-income customers with relief from the increasing costs of system upgrades, fully funding agencies to manage forests and suppress fires on federal lands, and improving collaboration between utilities and federal land managers.

Johnson also asked for Congress to enable federal agencies to share satellite data on wildfire detection. "Modern satellite technology operated by the U.S. Department of Defense can detect an outbreak almost instantaneously," the CEO said.

He also called for federal research and development investments to focus on "technologies that can allow utilities to better plan for and increase their wildfire resilience," including long-duration energy storage and advanced, low-emission mobile generation systems.

Last, Johnson asked Congress to request a comprehensive study on wildfire causes, impacts and recovery. The study should include recommendations on improving the resilience of critical infrastructure, enhancing emergency response, modernizing vegetation and forest management, evaluating rural planning and zoning policies, and improving government coordination, the CEO said.