Improvement costs approach $600 million

Last month, in response to Senate Bill 901 (approved Sept. 21, 2018), California’s electric public utilities submitted wildfire mitigation plans to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Southern California Edison’s plan was more than 100 pages long. The document described dozens of different actions and plans to lower the risk of a wildfire igniting near or because of Edison’s equipment. Many of these steps have already been implemented or are being prepared for implementation this year or next year.

SCE’s two principal objectives are “… further harden the electric system against wildfires and enhance wildfire suppression efforts…” Edison estimates that nearly one-third of its territory is considered “High Fire Risk,” according to the CPUC and Cal Fire designations.

Most of the planned and proposed actions were shared with local residents last spring, when MDP invited SCE representatives to speak at a community meeting, and through press releases on its website (www.sce.com/safety/wildfire), as well as the “Grid Safety and Resiliency Program” that SCE also submitted to the CPUC in September 2018.

The WMP also describes SCE’s goals and the measures to assess the accomplishment or progress toward the goals.

In the press release with the WMP, Phil Herrington, SCE’s senior vice president of Transmission and Distribution, said, “This is an aggressive plan to protect public safety. We are implementing a variety of additional tools and technologies to advance fire safety even further throughout our system to respond to the ‘new normal’ of year-round wildfire risk.”

Among the many actions SCE has begun implementing, or has completed, is system hardening as a critical protective action. SCE is replacing older bare conductors with covered conductors, inspecting and replacing poles, and installing automatic reclosers, which function like a circuit breaker.

The newer conductors will “… significantly reduce contact from object ignition risks.” In its analysis of past wildfires, SCE found that more than half resulted from suspected objects contacting SCE’s lines. “The goal is to install at least 96 miles of covered conductor in high fire risk areas,” according to the WMP.

SCE also plans to replace more than a thousand wood poles with fire-resistant composite poles in high fire-risk areas.

The state is not the only agency with which SCE is working and cooperating to build collaboration. “Currently, SCE and other electric utilities are working with the USFS to negotiate master service agreements to expedite a broad range of vegetation management activities on Forest Service Lands, such as the process for trimming and removal of trees. This master service agreement is expected to be finalized in first quarter 2019,” according to the press release.

With the help of licensed arborists, SCE will evaluate the threat of trees as potential risks to power lines. This may result in removing nearly 7,500 hazardous trees near lines this year. SCE will regularly inspect lines, looking for potential problems.

Besides replacing older equipment, and installing newer and safer equipment and removing potential vegetative threats, SCE also is strengthening its ability to forecast and identify problems remotely. It is installing hundreds of local weather stations and remote cameras, and using new threat algorithms.

Another major action, which local residents have already experienced, is the public safety power shut-off. SCE is revising and expanding its protocols for when it decides to “de-energize” (turn the power off) a portion of its grid.

The WMP describes dozens of actions and plans SCE will be implementing this year and next. According to the September “Grid Safety Program,” the costs will approach $600 million.

Estimated costs for both the GSRP and the WMP could be $230 million for capital investment and $220 million of added operational and maintenance expenses in just 2019.

Installing the covered conductors could cost nearly $50 million this year and the overhead inspections could cost in the vicinity of $250 million, as would the pole replacement efforts.

In developing its plans and actions to protect the electric system and reduce wildfire threats, SCE acknowledges it has included assessments of the threat of climate change increasing the risk of large and severe wildfires.

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