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CPUC Appeals FCC Decision Repealing Net Neutrality, Advocating for Fair and Equal Internet Access for Consumers

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On Dec. 14, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality rules that require Internet service providers to treat online content equally and not interfere with consumers' ability to lawfully access online content, applications, or websites of their choosing (the FCC released a final decision on Jan. 4, 2018). Without these rules, Internet service providers may force websites to pay fees for faster Internet speeds, while limiting consumers' ability to access the Internet content of their choice.

 

The CPUC strongly objects to the FCC's actions, and had urged the FCC to keep the non-discriminatory rules adopted in 2015, which are consistent with California's continued efforts to promote fairness and access in the telecommunications market.

 

Today, the CPUC filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit a Petition for Review of the FCC's decision to repeal net neutrality rules on the grounds that the decision is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion. The CPUC says the FCC's decision violates federal law, including but not limited to the U.S. Constitution and the Communications Act of 1934, and requests that the Court vacate the FCC's decision.

 

The CPUC continues to be committed to consumers having fair and equal access to the Internet.

Director Blog: Utility Wildfire Risk Mitigation Through Fuel Management Policies; Importance of Vegetation Management for Utility Wildfire Hazard Mitigation

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Below is a blog from Elizaveta Malashenko, the Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division.

In a previous blog I introduced an approach of considering policy actions in three broad categories following the fire triangle model - fuel management, ignition control, and weather preparedness policies. This blog will dive into fuel management policies, specifically focusing on utility vegetation management and planting practices.

The leading cause of fires ignited by utility infrastructure is a contact between electric equipment and an object, without equipment failure as a contributing factor. More than 50 percent of those incidents are due to vegetation (as opposed to vehicles, animals, balloons, etc.).  As such, vegetation management is critical for fire hazard mitigation. Vegetation management is also critical for reliability, as contact between utility facilities and vegetation is the leading cause of outages nationally. An attempt by people to trim trees in proximity to electric lines is also one of the leading causes of injuries and fatalities related to the electric system. While it varies between utilities, it is generally accepted that utility vegetation management expenses are one of the largest expense items associated with maintaining overhead transmission and distribution electrical systems. California investor-owned utilities spend more than $250 million a year on vegetation management on distribution lines alone. If vegetation management activities were calculated for all utilities in the state (including electric transmission, gas transmission and distribution, municipal utilities, and telecommunication companies) the total vegetation management costs for the state likely exceed $1 billion a year.

The traditional approach to vegetation management is establishing and maintaining a required clearance level. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) sets vegetation management requirements for transmission. California and Oregon are the only states that have clearance requirements for the electric distribution system. Most other states that have any safety regulations for electric distribution facilities adopt the National Electric Safety Code (NESC) by reference, which has vegetation clearance guidelines for utilities, but not hard requirements.

However, vegetation clearance requirements by themselves are not sufficient to prevent wildfires or to otherwise ensure that vegetation does not cause safety and reliability incidents. Clearance requirements by themselves are insufficient for two main reasons:

  • Clearance requirements do not address the issue that vegetation outside of clearance levels can come into contact with electric facilities under specific circumstances, such as storm or a dead tree falling down. As a simple concept, if there is a 100 foot tree growing 75 feet away from an electric line it can potentially fall and contact an electric line and cause a fire.
  • Wind causes trees to fail unexpectedly. Arborists are not able to predict which trees will fail under wind conditions exceeding 55 miles per hour, but even tree failure with winds of 25 miles per hour are hard to predict. With winds of more than 25 miles per hour, healthy tree branches can break off and trees can split. Winds exceeding 55 miles may uproot healthy trees. It is therefore not possible to predict with any reliable accuracy which trees will fail in storm conditions.

Consequently, any tree that is tall enough to contact an electric facility if it falls theoretically constitutes a fire hazard. This is something that's recognized by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and NERC. (This is from a study completed by FERC and NERC after snowstorms in the Northeast in 2011. It concluded that a "great number of healthy trees, most outside of utility rights-of-way, being uprooted and falling onto distribution and transmission lines" were the cause of the widespread outages. This lead to NERC issuing an alert to utilities to address risks posed by trees outside of the utility right of way.)

Therefore, the only reliable way to reduce fire hazards and other risks associated with contact between vegetation and electric lines is to reduce the population of trees that can grow or fall into utility lines. While this may seem infeasible at first, there is significant opportunity for movement in that direction, especially in urban areas and anywhere where vegetation is planted.

 

Planting Management Presents an Opportunity to Improve Fire Safety

Under the current vegetation management paradigm, there are very few incentives that promote planting of vegetation that's compatible with electric facilities. The land/property owners do not directly bear the cost of ongoing vegetation management of vegetation planted in proximity to electric lines. Often, landscaping decisions are made with no consideration for the electric infrastructure. Utilities have no control over vegetation planted outside of their right of way and generally become aware of vegetation once it's already in existence. Utility vegetation management is typically performed by third-party contractors hired by utilities. Vegetation management contractors benefit from needing to perform inspection and frequent pruning, while for utilities this cost is typically an Operations and Maintenance (O&M) cost passed through to consumers. In this traditional approach to vegetation management, there is no effort dedicated to ensuring that vegetation that may grow or fall into power lines is not planted in the first place. As population density increases, the costs only grow.

The lack of incentives to plant the right vegetation in the right place has a major impact. For example, in a study done in Phoenix, more than 70 percent of trees surveyed were found to be planted such that they would need to be removed. As an illustration of this problem in California, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) reported an incident in which a developer planted 300 redwood trees directly under power lines and declined to move them when it was pointed out that the trees would need to be pruned or removed. These situations happen due to an absence of rules guiding planting decisions on private property, even though they are estimated to comprise nearly half of vegetation in urban environments. Local ordinances, where they exist, typically only apply to trees in public space and rarely address interaction of vegetation with power lines.

In order to systematically reduce the risk of wildfires, we need to focus on reducing the availability of fuel in proximity to potential sources of ignition. While the prospect of reducing hazardous vegetation may seem daunting at first, there is a path towards systematic improvements. The lifespan of naturally occurring trees in California typically exceeds 100 years, with many tree species having a life expectancy exceeding 300 or 400 years. However, planted trees, especially in urban environments, have an average lifespan of 19 to 28 years, with a half-life of 13 to 20 years (i.e., only 50 percent of trees make it to 13-20 years).  There are several causes for this, but frequent pruning is one of the drivers of the short life-span for urban trees. This relatively short lifespan of planted trees presents a realistic opportunity to reduce the population of trees that are not compatible with electric infrastructure over time, while also introducing other environmental benefits (one simple environmental benefit is that if trees are planted that don't require frequent pruning due to their proximity to electric lines they will have longer lifespans and therefore more environmental benefits). Policies for managing tree species in areas that were impacted by wildfires can also over time result in improvement in compatibility of vegetation and electric lines.

Obviously, complete elimination of all vegetation that may come into contact with electric facilities is not feasible, especially for a state the size of California. However, it should be possible to at least stop compounding existing challenges by making sure that vegetation that's under our control is planned to be compatible with utility infrastructure.

The good news is that there are solutions and existing programs to build upon. In future blogs, I will explore possible actions that can be taken to promote planting practices that are fire-resilient, beneficial to the environment, and cost effective.

Elizaveta Malashenko was named Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division in February 2015. 

Director Blog: Identifying New and Innovative Approaches to Mitigating Wildfires

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Below is a blog from Elizaveta Malashenko, the Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division.

The 2017 California wildfire season was the most destructive one on record, with more than 9,000 fires burning more than 1.2 million acres and the occurrence of five of the 20 most destructive wildland-urban interface fires in the state's history according to statistics from CAL FIRE. This presents the CPUC with the urgency and an opportunity to take a new and expanded look at wildfire prevention policies. On January 31, 2018, we held a Fire Safety and Utility Infrastructure En Banc to examine fire threat in California and to consider actions that can be taken to further mitigate risk of wildfires as related to electric infrastructure. While the En Banc spurred a great discussion, it's just a beginning of a dialogue that will unfold this year. My personal top priority for 2018 is to identify best practices and to promote policies pertaining to utility wildfire mitigation, with a heightened focus on identifying innovative approaches and creative policy paradigms.

California state agencies, counties, U.S. Forest Service, and many stakeholders collectively work to understand and address threats to 33 million acres of forests state-wide. These efforts focus on identifying the highest fire threat areas and introducing management practices into those forests to render them more resilient to fire and more inclusive of the multiple benefits forests provide, such as water retention, erosion control, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. With a specific focus on prevention of ignition of wildfires from utility infrastructure, the CPUC has adopted some of the most stringent regulations in the U.S., including strict vegetation clearance requirements for the electric distribution system. These statewide efforts create a great foundation for further innovation and cross-disciplinary partnerships.

Electric infrastructure is identified as one of the top sources of ignition of major wildfires, with several of the most destructive fires in California's history involving electric power facilities, particularly distribution lines. To understand this issue further, the CPUC has been collecting data on all instances of fire ignitions from electric infrastructure operated by the three major investor-owned utilities in California since 2014. More than 13,000 ignitions have been reported to the CPUC to date, most of them resulting in minor fires of less than a quarter acre. The incident data collected helps shed light on direct causes of fire incidents.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 1

The leading cause of fires ignited by utility infrastructure is a contact between electric equipment and an object, without equipment failure as a contributing factor. More than 50 percent of those incidents are due to vegetation (as opposed to vehicles, animals, balloons, etc.).

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 2

The second most common cause is "equipment/facilities failure", with more than half of those incidents involving wire and splice failure.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 3

This data provides a good starting point for where to focus mitigation efforts. An additional factor that's not highlighted by this data is the importance of weather conditions, particularly humidity and wind. Wind especially tends to be key when looking at major wildfires where utility infrastructure was involved. This makes logical sense, since high winds result in tree branches breaking off and in trees failing, and as the wind carries this vegetation it can encounter electric infrastructure and ignite. High wind conditions also result in rapid fire spread, so the conditions that elevate the risk of utility infrastructure igniting fires are also the same conditions that elevate risk of wildfires in general.

Wildfires need three things to develop - fuel (vegetation), heat (ignition source), and air (weather). Electric utility infrastructure can be a source of ignition, vegetation serves as the fuel and weather creates conditions for wildfires to spread. To align with wildfire catalysts and reduce the potential and destructiveness of future wildfires, my proposed approach is to consider policy actions in three broad categories following the fire triangle model - fuel management, ignition control, and weather preparedness policies.

Fire Incident - 2-9-18 blog - image 4

One way that I look at it, the fire incident data can inform priorities and the fire triangle framework can provide a structure for ideation and policy development. But this is just a foundation, as ultimately we need a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach. California has already implemented the most aggressive regulations for utility wildfire prevention in the U.S. and at this point there aren't obvious low-hanging fruit in terms of additional regulations that need to be adopted. It's going to take paradigm shifts and new ways of thinking about the issues in order for us to make significant progress in this area. While the challenge that we face is a great one, I believe we also have the capabilities to address it.

As the next step, I will be working to identify best practices and policy proposals for each of the three categories. As part of this effort, I plan to engage with experts and stakeholders across all disciplines and create opportunities for dialogue. Many individuals have already reached out to share their ideas and proposals, and I encourage anyone who wants to engage in this effort to reach out to me directly (eim@cpuc.ca.gov). I will keep everyone posted on the effort through this blog, social media, the CPUC's website, and various other means.

Thank you to everyone who shared their expertise at the En Banc and with me directly. I look forward to continue the dialogue on this vitally important issue.  

Elizaveta Malashenko was named Director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division in February 2015.

Notice of CPUC Commissioner Informational Webinar: CPUC Information Alert

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We are hosting an Informational Commissioner Webinar regarding the impacts of climate change and resulting resiliency challenges, the role of utilities in response to these challenges, the potential impact of these events on utilities' finances and Californians, and the CPUC's response to these events.


Due to the high interest in these topics, our Commissioners will provide brief remarks and address questions in a webinar format open to the public. To comply with California's statutory requirements regarding ex parte communications with Commissioners, which became effective January 1, 2017, the public, including the investment community, submitted questions for consideration by the CPUC. Prior to the Commissioners' review of questions, the Commission's Legal Division is screening the questions to ensure that any ex parte statements regarding CPUC proceedings are not provided to the Commissioners. No votes or Commission action will occur during this webinar.


When: February 7, 2018, 2 p.m. - 3 p.m.

Who: A quorum of Commissioners may be present. CPUC Energy Division Director Edward Randolph and General Counsel Arocles Aguilar will also participate.

Where: http://www.adminmonitor.com/ca/cpuc/

To participate by phone call 1-800-857-1917 and enter the passcode 92105.

The webinar will take place in the CPUC Auditorium, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA.

Agenda: 

  1. Opening remarks of the Commissioners
  2. Response to select questions submitted by the public (see below for instructions on how to submit questions)
  3. Closing remarks of the Commissioners
  4. Public comment

Ex Parte Compliance
: The Commissioners will not make ex parte statements regarding any CPUC formal proceeding or pending investigation, which may lead to a formal proceeding, at this webinar and requests that no parties or interested persons make ex parte statements either. This bar includes but is not limited to proceedings listed in the notice at http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/calEvent.aspx?id=6442456054.

 

CPUC Issues 2017 Annual Report: CPUC Information Alert

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Today we issued our Annual Report to the Governor and Legislature detailing our continued contributions toward making California a national and international leader in a number of  important policy areas. The report highlights major activities and key actions in regulating the state's energy, water, transportation, and communications industries in 2017.

 

Key highlights in the CPUC's 2017 Annual Report include:

  • Organizational reform and collaborative inter-agency efforts
  • Responding to and investigating wildfires
  • Efforts to increase access to affordable energy
  • Continuing improvement on gas safety issues, which includes adopting a landmark program for methane leak reporting, and coordinating on safety assurance activities at gas storage facilities
  • Implementing California's climate change policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts
  • Making water conservation a California way of life

Read our most recent blog postings in the sidebar at right.


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