New California Public Utilities Commission Fire Safety Regulations / by Norris McDonald

On December 14, 2017, the California Pubic Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted new fire-safety regulations designed to require the state’s electric utilities to:

  • Increase clearances between vegetation and power lines,
  • Conduct annual patrol inspections of overhead distribution facilities,
  • Prepare fire prevention plans, take other steps to mitigate fires in high-risk zones, and
  • Establishes a High Fire-Threat District map to inform where these actions are needed most.

This new policy includes significant new fire-prevention rules for utility poles and wires, including major new rules for vegetation management.  The map includes a broader definition of fire threat and also shows how dramatically climate impacts are increasing fire risks -- land that is covered in the elevated, high and tree mortality fire hazard areas has grown from 31,000 square miles to 70,000 square miles. That’s 44 percent of California’s total land area.

Utilities would also be given greater authority to disconnect customers who refuse to allow crews to remove trees on their property that pose a fire risk.  The new regulations will affect a newly established designation of land in California, the “high fire-threat district.” A detailed map, developed in concert with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, will show areas of the state with an elevated fire risk. The maps are expected to be finalized sometime next year.

Utilities will be required to increase the minimum clearance between electrical equipment, including power and transmission lines, and trees and other vegetation.  Utilities would also be given greater authority to disconnect customers who refuse to allow crews to remove trees on their property that pose a fire risk.  

Southern California has been under siege from multiple wildfires, pushed by the fiercest Santa Ana winds to hit the region in a decade.  The Thomas Fire -- the largest and most destructive fire currently raging in the region -- grew to 250,000 acres and claimed the life of a young fire engineer.  

SDG&E sought to recover $379 million, which represents a portion of the $2.4 billion in costs and legal fees the utility incurred to resolve third-party damage claims from the Witch, Guejito and Rice wildfires. In all three cases, SDG&E was found guilty of imprudent management.

For investor-owned utilities, the inability to recover costs from a natural disaster presents a fundamental business risk.  How can California utilities continue to attract smart investment if there’s a fear in the investment community that there might be an undue risk associated with their ability to recover a fair rate of return because of wildfires?

It is unfair to put the burden squarely on energy companies for this reason because fires are a societal issue. It’s an issue that involves better forest management, more resources and training for the first-responder community, and possible changes to building codes and land-use planning. Utilities also need to come up with new ways to prevent fires and ensure grid resilience.  (Green Technology Media, 12/18-2017, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/28/2017)