Tag Archives: sb901

Rural broadband gaps are life and death issues, California wildfire study says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Paicines pole route

Ageing, inadequate infrastructure contributed to the destruction during last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that killed 86 people and did billions of dollars worth of damage. Congested roads were a big part of the problem, but so was a lack of telecommunications service, either because it was knocked out by the fires or, in many cases, not there in the first place, according to a report by a “strike force” commissioned by California governor Gavin Newsom…

In a matter of hours, 52,000 people from rural Paradise and surrounding communities evacuated onto roads built for a fraction of that capacity and converged on Chico, overwhelming the recovery system. The scale and speed of catastrophic, wind-driven wildfires, like the Camp Fire, incapacitate existing emergency response systems, local infrastructure and planned recovery efforts. Many California communities designed their fire emergency response and recovery systems decades ago, using old technology and outdated fire modelling. A clear overhaul of the California emergency response systems and the underlying infrastructure is needed.

The lack of broadband in rural communities and access to cell service make it difficult to communicate clear emergency evacuation orders to residents or locate residents who are in trouble.

Broadband did not play a significant role in warning residents of massive fires sweeping through California’s wine country in 2017. The North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium surveyed nearly 1,600 residents of the fire stricken areas. Only 11 said they received warnings from online sources: five on Facebook, four from Nextdoor.com and two via notices on public agency websites.

Phone calls – including those from from family, friends, public agencies – played a bigger role. About a third of the respondents were alerted via either mobile or landline calls.

The big problem during the wine country fires was the damage done to telecommunications infrastructure. Nearly four-fifths of the people surveyed lost mobile connectivity, either partially or completely, and two-thirds lost landline connections. Overall, 69% were cut off from the Internet for at least some of the time during the disaster.

Wildfires burn in northern California, but proactive power cuts might have limited the damage

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Thomas fire 2018 utility lines 300

Pacific Gas and Electric did two rounds of proactive cuts over the weekend, in response to warnings of high fire danger due to weather conditions. It was no false alarm. Cal Fire’s online map shows more than a dozen wildfires in PG&E’s territory, including the Sand Fire in Yolo County that’s grown to at least 2,200 acres. There’s no basis to speculate why any of those fires began – that’s a question for later.

However, there is reason to suspect that it might have been worse if PG&E hadn’t cut off electricity to approximately 23,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Solano, Yolo (but not where the Sand Fire began) and Yuba counties. Before power could be turned back on, PG&E crews had to inspect 800 miles of lines and, according to a PG&E press release, they “found instances of damage to de-energized equipment caused by the extreme weather event”.

Utilities shouldn’t bear damage costs alone, California wildfire report recommends

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California governor Gavin Newsom’s wildfire “strike force” published its findings on Friday. The report offers suggestions for preventing, or at least reducing, catastrophic wildfires, and for paying for the damage when they do happen. The short answer is spread the costs around.

One of the central concepts floated by the report is to change California’s strict liability standard, which requires electric and telecoms utilities to pay for all wildfire damages if their equipment is involved in starting a fire, whether or not they did something wrong. Instead, the report suggests moving to a “fault-based standard”, where “utilities pay for damage if caused by their misconduct”. If there was no bad behavior on the part of a utility, though, the cost would shift to “insurance companies and uninsured or underinsured property owners”.

Another idea is to have all investor owned electric utilities, and possibly municipal ones, to pay into a fund that would act as an insurance policy of sorts by covering catastrophic wildfire costs. One issue is that the shareholders and ratepayers of lower risk utilities, such as San Diego Gas and Electric, would, in effect, subsidise those served by utilities with higher wildfire risks, such as Pacific Gas and Electric – assuming that a post-bankruptcy PG&E can even afford to participate.

Part of the solution, the report says, is to take advantage of the “opportunity to build a new, responsible, and accountable utility for northern California” created by the bankruptcy proceeding. Although the report mentions breaking up PG&E into smaller regional companies or municipal utilities, it doesn’t say how that can be accomplished, given that federal judges – bankruptcy and criminal – will be making those decisions for the time being. The only suggestion is for the state to “actively monitor and appear in the bankruptcy proceeding” and “be heard”. So far, that seems to be having little effect.

There’s more. Besides the obligatory nod toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the report also outlines some obvious measures: reduce wildland fuel loads, improve emergency planning and education, and upgrade firefighting technology and manpower. And it takes a welcome swipe at the predatory bar, listing “attorneys representing victims” as stakeholders who need to bear some of the burden of wildfire damages, presumably by reducing the “substantial” cost of legal fees and expenses.

PG&E plans faster, wider power cuts during high fire threats in 2019

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pacific Gas and Electric will cut off electricity more automatically, more thoroughly and over a wider area when “extreme fire risk conditions” are present. That’s one of the wildfire risk mitigation measures it promises to implement this year.

Along with five other privately owned Californian electric utilities, PG&E submitted its wildfire prevention plan to the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday. It says it will inspect more lines, cut down more trees and harden more equipment in the coming months and years, as well as aggressively turning off power when the threat of wildfires is high. The proactive power cuts will be greatly expanded, to include…

  • 25,200 miles of low voltage distribution lines, up from 7,100 miles.
  • 5,500 miles of transmission lines, up from 370 miles. Instead of limiting it to lines carrying 70 kilovolts or less, lines of up to 500 kilovolts will be cut off if necessary.
  • Potentially 5.4 million customer premises, up from 570,000 customers.
  • Areas that face an “elevated” fire threat, in addition to those that face an “extreme” one.

PG&E also says it will streamline “decision criteria to reduce the level of judgment in the criteria to the extent feasible”. In other words, reduce the opportunity for managers to dither over whether or not to cut power.

One result is predictable and entirely acceptable: more PG&E customers will complain because their power is off. That happened last year, when PG&E proactively cut power in some northern California communities in October. It’s not a huge leap of logic to suppose that the backlash made managers more reluctant to turn off the juice in November. High winds and dry conditions were present once again, and led to the Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

A PG&E transmission line is suspected of sparking that fire. Under the new plan, it could have been turned off – it was in a high risk area, conditions were extreme, and it was 110 kilovolts (within the new limit but over the old one) – and probably would have been if the decision had been based on automatic criteria rather than a subjective judgement call.

The plan will be reviewed by the CPUC and by the federal judge that’s supervising PG&E criminal probation. Judge William Alsup has been sharply critical of PG&E and suggested it should do many of the things proposed in the plan, although not all his suggestions were included in it.

The wildfire prevention plan notwithstanding, yesterday was not a good day for PG&E. A natural gas line exploded in San Francisco and set several buildings on fire. There were no reports of injuries. It was apparently caused when a fiber optic construction crew hit a gas line. Whenever underground construction work is done, the contractor is supposed to notify PG&E and other utilities, which are then responsible for coming out and marking where their lines are. That’s a job that PG&E is accused of shirking in the past by the CPUC. Responsibility for yesterday’s blast is yet to be determined.

Wildfire mitigation plans
Bear Valley Electric Service
Liberty Utilities
Pacific Gas and Electric
Pacificorp
San Diego Gas and Electric
Southern California Edison

SCE asks court to extend wildfire liability to cities and counties, too

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

santa barbara county flood map

If a local government allows homes to be built in high risk communities and doesn’t build or manage infrastructure in a way that mitigates that risk, could it be as responsible for disasters as an electric company that similarly installs and operates electric lines to serve those areas? That question was handed to a Los Angeles County superior court judge on Friday by Southern California Edison.

SCE’s wildfire liability problem isn’t as apocalyptic as Pacific Gas and Electric’s, but by any other measure it’s bad. The damage from 2017 and 2018 wildfires linked to SCE’s equipment is well into the billions of dollars range. That’s because utility companies – electric or telecoms – that take advantage of the right of way privileges granted by California law are responsible for paying the full cost of any damage that results – by “inverse condemnation” – even if they’re only partly to blame.

As are government agencies, that likewise use private property for public purposes.

With that in mind, SCE filed a complaint against Santa Barbara County, a couple of local special districts and Caltrans. They are accused of improperly allowing homes to be built in a disaster prone area, and otherwise mismanaging flood control responsibilities, road and bridge design and emergency evacuations.

The specific issues in the case involve the deadly and destructive mudslides in Montecito in 2017, that followed the massive Thomas fire that, in turn, was allegedly caused by SCE’s equipment. But if courts eventually accept SCE’s logic, then cities and counties could also be held responsible for wildfire damage if they make poor decisions about where homes may be built. According to SCE’s filing

Santa Barbara County was…obligated to appropriately restrict development and redevelopment in unincorporated areas, including Montecito, where improper developments could risk diverting and exacerbating floods and debris flows and would face increased risk of themselves succumbing to natural disasters. However, the County failed to comply with its own obligations or adequately enforce its own ordinances, as Montecito continued to develop quickly. By 2018, the open agricultural areas that once dotted Montecito had largely disappeared, replaced by densely packed residences, commercial buildings, bridges, roads, and other structures that encroached upon the natural floodplain and floodway, often in violation of the County’s Floodplain Ordinance…

The development and associated infrastructure constructed or permitted by the County in these areas created obstructions that exacerbated damages from debris flow events and placed area residents in harm’s way…

Where, as here, the public entity “has made the deliberate calculated decision to proceed with a course of conduct, in spite of a known risk,” just compensation is owed.

SCE is pushing back in other ways against the inverse condemnation principle, and the strict liability that results. It’s asking the California supreme court to limit the way the principle is applied and, along with PG&E, jumping in on a similar case brought by San Diego Gas and Electric. Lower courts have not been sympathetic to SCE’s arguments, but the magnitude of the problem and the diversity of possible contributing causes – climate change, demographics and land use policy, for example – could convince the California supreme court to consider whether current practice does sufficiently “socialise the burden” of wildfires, as California law presumes.

Stark contrast between PG&E, SCE decisions and SDG&E’s wildfire prevention actions

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sdge berg electric

Turning off electric power lines in dry, windy conditions is one way to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The California Public Utilities Commission is about to start the wheels turning on an investigation into how and when that should be done. Optimistically, the draft order instituting rulemaking predicts that it’ll be wrapped up sometime next summer.

Last summer, the CPUC allowed Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and a handful of smaller “investor owned” electric utilities to do the same kind of proactive de-energisation that San Diego Gas and Electric has been allowed to do since 2008. It’s too early to conclude whether their subsequent efforts did any good, but the hazy picture we have now indicates that there is considerable room for improvement, by utilities and their customers:

Turning power off is relatively simple. Turning it back on is not. Lines have to be inspected first, and re-energising has to be done systematically and carefully. Even absent nimby whining, it’s not something to be done casually. But there is a clear contrast between the decisions made by PG&E and SCE ahead of the Camp and Woolsey fires, and the actions taken by SDG&E.

As governor Jerry Brown aptly put it, California’s wildfire disasters are the “new abnormal”. The CPUC should consider how best to cope with this new reality, but utilities – electric and telecoms – should not wait. It’s time to revise the playbook.

Plan to allow electric utilities to pass on 2018 wildfire costs to customers is on hold

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Any help with wildfire liability that major electric companies might be expecting from the California legislature will wait until next month. Assemblyman Chris Holden (D – Los Angeles) didn’t introduce his planned bill when the legislature met briefly to swear in new members and open the new session. Holden had planned to, at a minimum, allow Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison to add damage costs to customers’ bills for 2018 wildfires. The legislature voted in August to allow them to pass on those costs to consumers for fires in 2017 and 2019 and beyond. But not for this year.

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times by John Myers, there’s significant opposition to offering PG&E, in particular, a helping hand….

“I’m very concerned,” Holden said. “I think there are a very fragile set of circumstances.”

Critics, however, are poised to pounce. Some believe the timing is inappropriate, so soon after the catastrophic Camp fire in Butte County. Others see the effort as tantamount to punishing utility customers — particularly those of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — through higher bills.

“All of this conversation is premature,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill (D – San Mateo), a frequent PG&E critic. “There is a major cost to ratepayers that I think is outrageous.”

That cost will run into the billions of dollars, assuming that early indications that point to PG&E electric transmission lines as the cause of the disastrous Camp Fire in Butte County turn out to be true. The way California law works, if a utility – electric or telecoms – is even partly to blame for starting a fire, then it’s responsible for the entire cost. Earlier this year, lawmakers rejected utility requests to change that.

The legislature reconvenes in January, which is the next opportunity for Holden and Hill, who has talked about bringing PG&E’s service territory under direct state control, to move ahead with new bills.

Fires will drive price hikes for electricity and broadband

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pacific Gas and Electric and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Southern California Edison face the potential of billions of dollars of liability for 1. this year’s wildfires, 2. last year’s wildfires and 3. preventing next year’s wildfires. Someone will have to pay the tab that fires have already run up in California. Under state law, if a utility is even partly to blame it has to bear the full burden, generally. But utilities, even highly regulated ones like privately owned electric companies, can pass some or all of those costs on to their customers.

So we all face the possibility of paying for the damage done, and preventing damage yet to be.

In the final hours of its session, the California legislature passed a law – senate bill 901 – that makes it easier for utilities to increase electric rates to pay for fire liability in 2017, and from 2019 on. But not this year. With PG&E potentially on the hook for the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, the one-year gap in the law puts a huge cloud over its future. Bankruptcy is a possibility.

One solution is to change the law, which assemblyman Chris Holden (D – Los Angeles) is considering. He’s currently the chair of the assembly’s utilities and energy committee (committee and leadership assignments will be changed to one extent or another when the next legislative session begins next month). According to a story on Bloomberg, his chief consultant is working on a new bill…

Kellie Smith, an adviser to assemblyman Chris Holden, said she is drafting legislation that could be introduced as early as Dec. 3. It may serve as a framework for lawmakers to consider relief for PG&E from the billions of dollars it faces in potential liability for death and property damage in Northern California’s Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history.

“He is concerned about the instability of the utility and the adverse effect it could have on ratepayers, and the ability to deliver services at a reasonable cost,” Smith said by telephone Monday.

A utility bailout bill will face opposition, so there is no guarantee it’ll pass. Senator Jerry Hill’s (D – San Mateo) reaction to Holden’s proposal was “what a sad day this is for California”. He might be PG&E’s most vocal critic in Sacramento, but he’s not the only one by far.

Looking ahead, utility rates – for electricity, broadband and anything else that runs on wires attached to poles – will continue to rise with or without more fires. Before these most recent fires, SCE told the California Public Utilities Commission that it expects to spend $670 million on grid safety over the next three years, and wants to add it to electric bills, raising the average bill by 1%. PG&E and San Diego Gas and Electric have to do the same math, and the equations are likely to change as the causes of the Camp and Woolsey fires are assessed and new rules come into effect.

SDG&E might point the way forward for PG&E and SCE. It aggressively shut off power to 24,000 homes during this latest siege, and has not been implicated in any wildfires. It’s also buried more of its lines – 60% of its route miles are underground, compared to 25% of PG&E’s, according to a story on CalMatters by Julie Cart.

But undergrounding is neither cheap or easy. It costs $3 million per mile on the average, according to PG&E, and can go even higher in urban areas. Any large scale wildland underground program is also likely to face opposition – California environmental law allows pretty much anyone to endlessly challenge any construction project. The prospect of sending bulldozers and backhoes through hundreds of miles of California’s backcountry will spark a rush that makes courthouses look like a Walmart on Black Friday.

Broadband companies share the cost of maintaining pole routes and building underground infrastructure. And sometimes even share the liability for fire damage.

PG&E reports second “incident” near Camp Fire ignition point, faces CPUC investigation

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

At least 71 people are dead, more than a thousand are missing, and the fight to contain the Camp Fire in Butte County continues. As dense smoke settled over its San Francisco headquarters, the California Public Utilities Commission said it will take a hard look at Pacific Gas and Electric, which might have been responsible for starting it.

In yet another bizarre twist to the story, PG&E filed a second incident report with the CPUC late yesterday afternoon, revealing that it “experienced an outage on the Big Bend 1101 12kV circuit in Butte County”, in the community of Concow, at 6:45 a.m. on 8 November 2018, the morning it all began. Previously, PG&E disclosed that it had an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line, a mile northeast of the town of Pulga, 30 minutes before that at 6:15 a.m.

The first report correlated to eyewitness reports of a fire underneath a PG&E high voltage line that began coming in at 6:33 a.m., which was before this second outage happened.

PG&E isn’t offering any details – or speculation – about what this second report might mean. It’s only saying “Cal Fire has collected PG&E equipment on that circuit” and “secured a location” nearby. All Cal Fire has said about the cause of the Camp Fire is that it’s “under investigation”.

Concow is between Pulga and Paradise. Until now, the publicly available information indicated that the fire started east of Pulga, where it was first reported, then moved west into Pulga, through Concow and then into Paradise. A story in the Chico Enterprise Record earlier this week told of how a zone by zone evacuation plan – previously rehearsed by Paradise officials – was pushed beyond the breaking point by the speed of the blaze. This latest report from PG&E raises the possibility that a second ignition point flared up closer to Paradise, taking everyone by surprise.

At this point it’s just my own speculation. But if something like that happened – two fires beginning so close together, from similar causes – it raises even more questions about how this kind of disaster can be prevented in the future.

CPUC president Michael Picker said in a press release “in the existing PG&E safety culture investigation proceeding, I will open a new phase examining the corporate governance, structure, and operation of PG&E, including in light of the recent wildfires”. He also said that the commission will begin implementing senate bill 901, which was passed by the California legislature earlier this year and allows electric utilities to pass some of the costs associated with wildfire liability on to customers.

The physical damage toll will be in the billions of dollars, beyond the limit of PG&E’s insurance coverage and, maybe, beyond its ability to pay under normal circumstances. Bankruptcy is a possibility, if PG&E is even partly to blame and the CPUC doesn’t offer a sufficient bail out.

Southern California Edison also faces the possibility of a multi-billion dollar damage bill from the Woolsey and Hill fires, which ripped through parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. One of its high voltage lines was near the Woolsey Fire’s point of origin, although the cause is yet to be determined as well.

Long term, there are many ideas floating around for reducing the risk of wildfires in California. But for now – for today – the only thing electric utilities can do is turn off power to high risk lines ahead of high wind forecasts.

So far, there have been no major wildfires in San Diego Gas and Electric’s territory. The winds came a little later there, and SDG&E aggressively and proactively de-energised lines before the worst hit. Power was deliberately cut to more than 24,000 customers, with all service restored by yesterday.

SCE didn’t proactively shut down any lines before the fires began, but did shut off a total of 85 customers in scattered locations as high winds continued. All were back on line by Wednesday. PG&E warned it might cut off power in Butte and either other northern California counties ahead of the Camp Fire, but did not do so and stopped issuing alerts more than a week ago.

SDG&E shuts off electricity in fire danger areas, possible SCE link to Woolsey blaze ignition

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

Update, 13:48, 12 November 2018: SCE has begun proactive shutoffs, according to its website “due to dangerous high winds in Red Flag fire areas, SCE shut off power to roughly 50 customers in the Moorpark area at about 10:50 a.m. this morning”.

Much of California is under a red flag warning this morning. High winds and dangerously dry conditions could mean yet more wildfires, and more trouble for the three major fires already burning. The death toll from the Camp Fire in Butte County rose to 29 overnight, with hundreds of people still missing. At least two people died in the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles County. Both of those fires are largely uncontained, with high winds expected today and tomorrow.

So far, San Diego Gas and Electric is the only major Californian electric utility to begin large scale, proactive power cuts. It turned off electricity in and around eight communities in San Diego County last night and this morning, affecting ten thousand customers. Southern California Edison put dozens of communities on alert yesterday, but so far hasn’t reported turning off power proactively. PG&E hasn’t updated its proactive electric shut off notices since Friday.

A possible link between SCE and the start of the Woolsey fire surfaced yesterday. SCE filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday night, stating that there was an interruption to a high voltage line near the start of the blaze, two minutes before the first report of a fire came in…

Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m. Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m. Our personnel have not accessed the area to assess our facilities in the vicinity of where the fire reportedly began. At this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that SCE’s incident caused the fire – it might have been the other way around – but it raises the possibility. Cal Fire lists the causes of the Camp, Woolsey and the (smaller and largely contained) Hill fires as “under investigation”.

Beyond the human tragedy, there’s no reliable damage estimate yet. All that’s certain is that it’ll be in the billions of dollars, if not tens or hundreds of billions, range. Under California law, utilities are on the hook for the full cost of the damage, even if the blame is shared with others. A bill passed in the final days of the California legislature’s session in August – senate bill 901 – allowed some of that cost to be passed on to electric customers, but that’s only a partial solution.

The cost of maintaining utility pole routes will climb, which will drive up costs for the telecommunications companies that share those routes. And if telecoms lines are involved in the start of a fire – a loose cable wrapping around electric lines was blamed in a 2007 San Diego County fire – then telephone, cable and other broadband companies would be similarly liable for the damage done.

Governor Jerry Brown said “this is the new abnormal” in a press conference yesterday. That applies as much to California’s telecoms future as it does to everything else connected to these fires.