Utilities Delayed Effort to Map Power Line Wildfire Risk

October 24, 2017

Two days before the deadliest outbreak of wildfires in California history, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and other utilities won the latest in a long series of delays to map where power lines pose the greatest wildfire risk, a report said Sunday.

For nearly a decade California utilities have helped delay the mapping effort that critics said could have led to stronger power poles and better maintenance before the recent catastrophic fires, The Mercury News reported.

The causes of fires that killed at least 42 people and destroyed more than 8,000 structures in Northern California this month are under investigation. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is looking into whether the PG&E’s equipment sparked some of the blazes, the utility said last week.

The Public Utilities Commission has been working on the mapping and tighter regulations since high winds knocked down power lines and sparked disastrous fires in San Diego in 2007. Proposals in the works could be costly for utilities, telecommunication companies and internet providers, among others.

PG&E has been among utilities that have repeatedly sought delays, arguing in July that proposed regulations would “add unnecessary costs to construction and maintenance projects in rural areas.”

A 2015 state Senate subcommittee report said the commission’s efforts had been “bogged down” for six years and documented five scheduling delays from 2012 to 2015. It said PG&E and other utilities wouldn’t agree to stricter construction standards until maps were completed.

“The sad part is the future didn’t arrive before these fires,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-Redwood City, a critic of PG&E and the utilities commission. “It’s an outrageous example of negligence by a regulatory agency.”

The pace of the mapping project has been “frustratingly slow,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, the commission’s director of safety and enforcement.

The commission expects the process to be completed early next year. Tougher rules for areas under “elevated” or “extreme” fire risk could require keeping power lines farther from vegetation and using poles that can tolerate higher wind speeds.

PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens wouldn’t answer questions about the commission’s project. He said the utility is focused on customers affected by the fires.

The San Francisco based utility is not the only power company to chip away at the proposed regulations.

After a March 31 deadline passed this year, PG&E was joined by Southern California Edison Co. and PacifiCorp in complaining that highlighting vulnerable power infrastructure on the final map “could present public safety and security issues.”

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