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Director Blog: Assessing Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans

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

On Feb. 13, 2019, regulators, utility representatives, and stakeholders gathered for a full-day workshop for an initial examination of Wildfire Mitigation Plans (WMPs) submitted the prior week by investor-owned utilities and transmission owners as directed by Senate Bill (SB) 901 (Dodd, 2018). The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) now has 90 days to review and adopt the plans, with the goal of having WMPs in place prior to the 2019 fire season when weather conditions pose the greatest threat.

At the WMP workshop, each utility outlined its plan and answered questions from CPUC Commissioners and staff, CAL FIRE experts, a diverse group of stakeholders, and the public.  As mandated by SB 901, the utility WMPs encompass all major aspects of utility operations that have an impact on wildfire ignition risk, including how utility overhead facilities are constructed, inspected, maintained, and operated, and how utilities monitor and respond in real-time to localized weather conditions and the threat of fire ignition from utility facilities/infrastructure.

California's electric grid spans the entire state across diverse terrain and ecology.  Wildfire risk drivers and specific challenges are as varied for each utility as their unique service territories. For this reason, WMPs allow for flexibility for each utility to develop a plan that is responsive to the specifics of their service territory, infrastructure, and risk profiles. However, there are some common elements that emerge across the utility WMPs: (a) expansion of situational awareness and weather monitoring, (b) investment in grid hardening, such as investment in coated conductors, and (c) expansion of vegetation management practices.  The Feb. 13 workshop was a good opportunity to get a feel for various utility approaches and for some cross-pollination of ideas. 

Around 300 people attended in person and by web conference, many of whom asked questions and suggested agenda items for the next set of workshops on February 26-27, 2019, which will delve into WMPs in greater detail. The CPUC, utilities, and parties to the WMP proceeding will have to work fast, hard, and smart for the WMP's to be adopted within 90 days to secure the benefits of the enhanced mitigation measures. 

It is also important to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the first round of WMPs, which will now be an annual process for California utilities. The WMPs draw on best practices from California and around the world, yet if there is one thing that WMPs show, is that there is no single strategy or mitigation measure that can quickly eliminate the risk of fire ignition from utility infrastructure. The new WMP approach is a paradigm shift not just for how the state approaches the utility role in wildfire risk management, but electric safety in general. Until introduction of the WMP model, the main safety regulation for electric and telecommunication facilities has been General Order (GO) 95, which has been in existence since 1941 and has undergone many revisions to address wildfire ignition risks, including incorporation of CPUC Wildfire Threat Maps and introduction of the strictest vegetation clearance requirements for distribution infrastructure in the U.S. Yet, the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons demonstrated the need for an adaptable regulatory scheme able to respond to the rapidly evolving conditions and increased risks of devastating wildfires. The annual WMP approach provides an opportunity to implement new ideas faster, however, it will be equally important to establish effective performance measures to assess how these ideas and strategies are performing in the real world, so collectively we can continually improve California's wildfire mitigation efforts.

The CPUC process relies on expertise and opinions of outside parties to evaluate utility proposals and policy options. In our review of WMPs, we depend on our partnership with CAL FIRE and thank their experts for their input on utility plans. It is essential that we get engagement and support from stakeholders as the CPUC evaluates the WMPs submitted by utilities and encourage participation in our process, which we are particularly focused on making more accessible and flexible. In addition to work being done in formal proceedings, the CPUC is also building a network of thought leaders in addressing the wildfire challenge in California and beyond.

More information about SB 901 and upcoming WMP workshops, please see our website.

You can learn more about California's first Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit on the Summit's website.

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