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Contrasts of competence as California assesses power cuts and utility pole route management

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pge outages 9oct2019

California’s privately-owned electric utilities and their regulators have a long and difficult job ahead as they try to figure out what was good and what was bad about last week’s massive wildfire prevention power cuts. Their eventual conclusions will have a significant impact on how utility pole routes are managed in California, including possible new, and more costly, design standards, and budgets for maintenance and wildfire prevention. Those costs will ultimately be shared with telecommunications companies that also use those poles.

The only major private electric utility that appears to be squarely in the good column is San Diego Gas and Electric. They shut off power to 395 customers, had them restored by Friday afternoon and did not start any fires. An excellent article in the Los Angeles Times by James Rainey and Joseph Serna details the operational, grid design and maintenance decisions SDG&E has made, and successfully implement, over the past decade.

The contrast with Pacific Gas and Electric is stark…

San Francisco-based PG&E is struggling to catch up with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which has become California’s recognized leader in forecasting fire danger, tailoring narrow outages for the most endangered neighborhoods and communicating the emergencies with the public, a top state regulator said.

“Those have been three pillars of success for SDG&E, and they are currently sources of failure for PG&E,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director for safety policy at the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E took a much blunter approach, cutting power to 738,000 customers in 34 counties across northern and central California. A customer is reckoned as a home or business – at least two million people were affected. Two dozen or more transmission lines – major, high voltage lines that feed regional and local distribution grids – were shut down. Full service wasn’t restored until late Saturday.

Whether or not it was necessary to cut off so many customers is a question that will be debated for months, if not years. What’s not in doubt is that PG&E completely fumbled public communications and poisoned relationships with the public, as well as state regulators and elected officials. Both CPUC president Marybel Batjer and California governor Gavin Newsom excoriated PG&E’s management and performance, even while conceding the necessity of “public safety power shutoff events”. The PG&E website was largely useless, and in some cases completely unavailable, and much of the information that did get out was inaccurate.

On the other hand, PG&E has not been implicated in any of the (relatively) small wildfires that broke out during the days of high winds and low humidity. To that extent, PG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts were successful.

Southern California Edison might not be as lucky. Although SCE won qualified praise for planning and executing its wildfire prevention program last week, its equipment might have been the cause of a major fire that began on the northern edge of the City of Los Angeles, and had spread through nearly 8,000 acres as of last night. Eyewitnesses said the Saddleridge fire began at the base of an SCE transmission tower, on a line that was still electrified. The LA fire department is treating those reports as credible, but its arson investigators have not reached any conclusions about the cause.

SCE shut off power to 24,000 customers, and restored power to all but four last night.

Broadband deployment will be more rigorous and costly in California, following U.S. supreme court ruling

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Southern California Gas and Electric can’t pass on wildfire costs to ratepayers. The federal supreme court declined to hear SDG&E’s appeal of a California Public Utilities Commission decision that put some of the burden of a 2007 series of wildfires on company shareholders. California’s strict “inverse condemnation” law requires utilities to bear the full cost of any damage when their pole routes, or other equipment in the right of way, is even partially to blame. Monday’s decision lets that principle stand. As a result, electric utilities will spend more on pole route maintenance and be tougher on inspections and standards enforcement.

Some of those additional costs, and all of the added rigour, will land on telephone, cable and other broadband companies that occupy space on utility poles.

According to a Los Angeles Times article by Rob Nikolewski,

Investigations into the causes of the Witch, Guejito and Rice fires — three of the worst wildfires in a devastating firestorm that befell San Diego County in October 2007 — found they were sparked by SDG&E equipment that had not been properly maintained.

The three fires combined to kill two people, injure 40 firefighters and destroy 1,300 homes…

SDG&E spent $2.4 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits related to the 2007 wildfires, but it insisted the blazes were ignited by factors it could not control — including extreme Santa Ana winds, a lashing wire owned by Cox Communications that hit an SDG&E power line and a tree limb that fell onto an SDG&E line due to high winds.

Properly maintained or not, SDG&E’s equipment was in the chain of events that led to the Guejito fire. So was Cox’s line, but even though it was the trigger, the California Public Utilities Commission tagged SDG&E with responsibility: it should have known that the cable company’s line was too close to its electrical line. According to investigator’s measurements, the two lines were separated by a bit more than three feet, instead of the six feet required by CPUC rules.

Cox ended up reimbursing SDG&E for a relatively small fraction of the $2.4 billion in liability claims that were paid out as a result of the three fires. But that was between the two companies; as applied by the CPUC and courts, California’s law put the liability burden on SDG&E.

The same legal principles apply to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s other two major investor owned electric utilities. They’ve lagged behind SDG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts, and are now playing catch up. The result will be higher levels of maintenance work and more rigorous inspections of pole routes, among other things. The cost of all of that – time, effort and money – will eventually be shared with telecoms companies. Deploying and maintaining broadband infrastructure in California will only become more expensive.

Fewer complaints, so far, as California utilities cut power to reduce wildfire risk

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Update: PG&E shut off power this morning, as previously announced. As of this evening, it had restored power in north Bay Area counties, and some of the affected Sierra foothill communities. SCE turned power back on for the Riverside County homes affected by Tuesday’s cuts. Public reaction to PG&E de-energisation moves remained as relatively muted as it did on Tuesday. The San Francisco Chronicle spoke to one upset Sonoma County supervisor, but on the whole there was very little NIMBY outrage.

Forecasts of high winds and hot temperatures this week led two of California’s major privately owned electric utilities to implement de-energisation plans that were drafted earlier this year. Californians’ acceptance of “public safety power shutoffs” as a necessary fire prevention tool appears to be growing, although we’ll find out today if residents of the more affluent communities of the north San Francisco Bay Area are as tolerant as people in the Sierra foothills.

PG&E announced that it is turning off power this morning to 48,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sonoma and Yuba. That follows cut offs in Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties for 24,000 customers that began Monday evening. Restoration of service to the first group was supposed to be completed yesterday evening. As of last night, Southern California Edison had turned off power for a few dozen customers in Riverside County, and put a 140,000 more across the Southland on notice.

San Diego Gas and Electric customers are not affected, so far.

People who live in Sierra foothill communities have more directly personal memories of the horrific fire that killed 86 people and largely destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County last year. So they might not be happy about losing power, but they did not seem to erupt in outrage as some Wine Country residents did last October. That’s progress.

The Sacramento Bee found one Butte County resident who was annoyed. She was interviewed at one of the “community resource centers” that PG&E set up, basically a big tent with air conditioning and plenty of outlets to charge phones. Judging by the video shot by Bee reporter Daniel Kim, few people were inconvenienced enough to make use of it.

That was the only kvetching that turned up in a Google news search as power was being restored yesterday afternoon, and only a relative handful of people took to Twitter to complain. PG&E is a particular punching bag on Twitter: the proactive power cuts didn’t add much to the vitriol that’s regularly directed at the company. But there’s a somewhat different group of people affected today. Stay tuned.

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.