Can Electric Utilities Coexist with Increasingly Severe Wildfires?
by Bob Shively, Enedynamics President and Lead Facilitator
Last week, PG&E Corporation and its utility subsidiary Pacific Gas and Electric Company declared voluntary bankruptcy. PG&E is one of the nation’s largest utilities providing electric and natural gas service to approximately 5.5 million customers in Northern California. The bankruptcy ranked as the sixth largest in history. PG&E will continue to operate throughout the bankruptcy process as consumers still need power and gas. The utility has lined up $5.5 billion in financing through various banks.
So, what led to the bankruptcy? Potential liabilities associated with multiple wildfires in Northern California coupled with a California law that makes utilities liable for damage caused by their equipment even if no negligence occurs.
It seems that PG&E is the first large corporate victim of global warming. PG&E’s service territory covers a 70,000-square-mile area in northern and central California. Much of the region comprises montane chaparral and woodlands that historically evolved with frequent wildfires. In recent years, an ongoing drought in California left a proliferation of dry grass, brush, and dying trees, and the region is subject to frequent strong winds. It’s a dangerous scenario for those tasked with power line safety for a utility company with 18,000 miles of transmission and 106,000 miles of distribution lines.
Hot weather causes lines to sag closer to the ground, wind causes lines to sway, and fires burn wooden power poles. All of these can result in live lines making contact with each other or with the ground, resulting in sparks that can quickly ignite dry vegetation. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), PG&E equipment was found to have caused 12 wildfires in 2017. And CalFire is still investigating the cause for the destructive Camp Fire in 2018.
Assuming the recent weather in California is the new normal, what can be done to protect electric systems against future incidents?
Some fire hardening techniques include:
Unfortunately, many of the fire hardening solutions go against at least one of two key principles of the utility business – high reliability and low costs. Shutting down lines on high-fire risk days means that communities are out of electric service for prolonged periods. And investing in fire hardening is expensive. In regions where wildfires are prevalent, utilities and regulators must work closely to decide what is the most efficient solution to reduce wildfire risk, protect customer interests, and allow utilities to maintain a viable business model.
Learn more about power line safety and how the physical electric system operates with our online energy training courses.
Enerdynamics offers two online courses, Electric System Fundamentals and Electric System Fundamentals – Condensed, as well as a live seminar for groups called Electric System Fundamentals: From Generation to the Meter. For more details reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-765-5432 ext. 700.