The Northern California Fires and Electric Utilities

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

Oct 24, 2017 (San Diego) Ten years ago San Diego had the largest fire in the state’s history. It was also the largest mass evacuation in state history. This year the county and the city celebrated that grim anniversary.

We had news stories that pointed out how the residents of Rancho Bernardo recovered. The stories ignored the more rural communities such as Crest, where the fires tore though poorer communities. The news stories also carefully avoided another point. This is the fact that San Diego Gas and Electric was found liable for the fire, and in the end settled to the tunes of millions of dollars. Local coverage also ignored the fact that they were fined by the California Public Utilities Commission.

A similar story is currently being written in Northern California. The fires in Santa Rosa are now the largest in state history, (that is a record none wants to have,) and the deadliest. We are also at the beginning of the legal process that may, or may not find Pacific Gas and Electric liable.

We know that there was a report from the Mercury News about transformer fires, right as the fires started. There are also reports of lack of maintenance, or a lag in cutting down brush and vegetation. The early inquiries by the legal office of Watts and Guerra have started.

Whether PG&E, like our local utility, ends up paying a small fine for the fires, is still years in the future. But the question should be asked. What can utilities do to help prevent these disasters? We have asked this a few times, after more than a few of the local fires. After all, every time we have a fire, whether the utility is responsible or not, they end up having to restore electric service across the service zone. Why? Wood poles and electric lines burn, it is that simple. Why our local utility has decided to harden the installations by replacing those wooden poles with metal poles. The lines are still exposed though.

While that is a good idea, there is a problem. We have seen this in every wind-driven fire as well. Those fires tend to burn hotter, and yes, the photos you saw from the Northern California fires where aluminum flowed from tire rims does happen. We have witnessed it. The temperatures are high enough that they may even damage those steel poles.

What these utilities refuse to even discuss is burying transmission lines. Why? Replacing the poles is expensive. burying the lines is extremely expensive. We are talking about tens of billions. The cost per foot, according to the Motley Fool, an industry-friendly blog is as follows:

 

Since costs can be north of $750 per foot to actually bury power lines or 10 times greater than roughly $70 per foot to install them above ground, the most sense could be using more durable, smarter transformers, which can be more efficient from a power perspective as well as less cost invasive.

So this is one reason why they do not. Also, the extended trenching needed to bury the lines, in what at times is sensitive habitat, is also cited. We do not have the issue of salt water corroding lines in the East County, but we will have an issue of expanding capacity when needed.

What we have though is a hotter planet, and that alone may call for burying power lines as a matter of national security. This will be, not just an expensive proposition, but part of the mitigation needed for wildfires.

The Mercury News went there just yesterday:

With downed power lines now under scrutiny as the suspected source of the devastating Wine Country fires, many experts say the country’s electrical grid is due for a costly overhaul, making it safer and more reliable in our increasingly digital world.

In 2007 the cost of the San Diego fires was rated at just north of $1 billion.

The 2017 wildfire season has been the worst on record. Not just because of the Napa fires, but because we have had far more fire starts than in previous years. This includes 2015, which was the worst up to that point.

these alerts not only pinpoint the areas most affected by the ongoing fires, they show that in California, 2017, has the highest total annual fire alerts in the past five years, including 2015.

This increase in fire activity is directly related to climate change. We either adapt or will continue to see more losses, The fact is that the utilities have a role to play in wildfire starts. We know this. 

The explosive failure of power lines and other electrical equipment has regularly ranked among the top three singular sources of California wildfires for the last several years. In 2015, the last year of reported data, electrical power problems sparked the burning of 149,241 acres — more than twice the amount from any other cause.

And regulators have hit the state’s investor-owned utilities with tens of millions of dollars in fines related to wildfires, including $37 million for the 2007 Malibu fire (Southern California Edison); $14.4 million for the Witch, Rice and Guejito fires the same year (San Diego Gas & Electric); and $8.3 million for the September 2015 Butte Fire (Pacific Gas & Electric).

The reality is that the utilities treat those fines as the cost of doing business. They are significantly lower than the cost of burying the lines. Just look at our local utility, which was fined $14.4 million dollars for the 2007 fires. That is a drop in the bucket, and hardly punitive. However, residents of San Diego paid a lot more than that to rebuild, and the cost to their lives. The fire suppression efforts were also much higher. As we pointed above, just north of $1 billion.

We have made it easy for the utilities to continue doing things the way they are. Why? The economics of it allows them to externalize the cost of fire suppression to the state and federal government, as well as the insurance companies that still cover the losses. It is great that the utility is replacing the wooden poles for steel poles. That is a form of mitigation. However, we must consider doing what the utilities will not do voluntarily. This is to mandate they bury lines. Turning the power off is a short term solution, and so is replacing the poles. Both are cost cutting measures. We are aware of the cost, but it also speaks to the likely need to return those utilities back to the public, like they once were.

Private companies have only one short sighted interest, and that is the quarterly balance sheet. However, the same insurance industry might stop issuing insurance to homes and other properties in high risk fire areas. Perhaps then, the owners of these homes will start putting pressure on legislatures, not just in California, to force utilities to bury their lines.

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