Electric utilities will decide when to cut power in the face of fire threats

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Californian electric utilities will have clearer guidance on how, if not when, to shut down – de-energise – local power lines when the danger of sparking a wildfire is at its peak. That’s assuming a decision drafted by California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker is approved later this month. It’s not the full and final instruction manual, but it’s a start. The new procedures will be in place for this year’s wildfire season and can be improved as time goes on.

As currently written, the CPUC wouldn’t give public safety agencies veto power over de-energisation decisions. They can ask for a delay, but “the electric…utilities retain ultimate authority to grant a delay and responsibility to determine how a delay in de-energisation impacts public safety”.

One question left for later is how, exactly, electric utilities will decide whether to cut off power to “transmission lines”. Those are the high voltage lines that are typically strung on tall, steel towers that march across the landscape. Shutting off a transmission line – as opposed to, say, a neighborhood “distribution line” – could impact hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. For now, electric utilities have the authority to shut down transmission lines as they see fit. That’s a good thing – last year’s deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people, was apparently sparked by a transmission line.

That aside, most of the draft decision focuses on communication, with the public and with public safety agencies. Electric companies would have to create clear, 24/7 lines of communications with public safety agencies and anyone who operates “critical facilities and infrastructure”, which includes broadband and phone systems.

Electric customers “should understand the purpose of proactive de-energisation, the electric..utilities’ process for initiating it, and the impacts if deployed”. The burden of making sure that happens would be placed on electric utilities, who would have to “reach customers no matter where the customer is located and deliver messaging in an understandable manner”.

Particular attention would be paid to “vulnerable populations”, which includes disabled people, children, the elderly, low income people and pregnant women. Whether reckoned vulnerable or not, everyone “within the boundaries of a de-energised area (and potentially adjacent jurisdictions)” would have to notified in advance. Responsibility for that would be split between the utilities and local governments. Public safety agencies – state and local – would get “priority notification” ahead of a proactive power cut.

Notification would, if possible, begin 72 hours before de-energisation happens. That would be a heads up warning, based on current and forecasted conditions.

Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison put out those kinds of alerts last fall, but didn’t actually shut off electric lines until the fires began and people started to die. San Diego Gas and Electric, though, followed through on its warnings and turned off power to tens of thousands of customers: no fires, no deaths.