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:
- PG&E proactively shut off electricity in several northern California communities in October. No wildfires broke out; customers were outraged but unharmed.
- PG&E left the power on in November. Its lines are the suspected cause of the Camp Fire; at least 85 customers burned to death.
- SCE made proactive power cuts to a few dozen homes, but not in the Woolsey Fire area. Lines that weren’t de-energised might have been the cause; at least three customers burned to death.
- As it’s been doing for several years, SDG&E shut off power to 24,000 homes in November, ahead of the same winds that drove the Camp and Woolsey fires. No wildfires started; no customers burned to death, no complaints were reported.
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.