New fire safety rules for util­i­ties?

PUC con­sid­ers tougher, costlier stan­dards af­ter re­cent blazes, which could lead to higher bills

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - GUARD­ING AGAINST INFERNOS By Ge­orge Ava­los gava­los@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors, alarmed by a se­ries of wild­fires that have scorched the state in re­cent years, are propos­ing a wide-rang­ing set of new fire-safety rules for PG&E and other big elec­tric­ity util­i­ties.

The pro­posed rules come as state agen­cies look into whether PG&E’s downed power poles and lines might have played a role in caus­ing the infernos that raged through Napa and Sonoma coun­ties last month, killing scores of peo­ple and lay­ing waste to thou­sands of homes. No con­clu­sion has been reached.

The state Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing step­ping up in­spec­tions of elec­tric­ity equipment, re­quir­ing more fre­quent util­ity pa­trols re­lated to equipment and veg­e­ta­tion, and sharply in­creas­ing the re­quired clear­ance be­tween power lines and veg­e­ta­tion. The stricter re­quire­ments would ap­ply to a much larger area

than cur­rent rules.

The re­quire­ments would be more ex­pen­sive for the util­ity com­pa­nies to im­ple­ment, po­ten­tially lead­ing to in­creases in rates, but no specifics have yet been of­fered.

“Power- line fires can cause enor­mous de­struc­tion as demon­strated by the cat­a­strophic pow­er­line fires in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Oc­to­ber and the dev­as­tat­ing Butte Fire in Amador and Calav­eras Coun­ties in Septem­ber 2015,” Valerie Kao and Ti­mothy Ken­ney, two ad­min­is­tra­tive law judges for the state PUC, wrote in a pro­posed de­ci­sion for the com­mis­sion to con­sider. They is­sued the pro­posal Wed­nes­day night.

Ken­ney and Kao also noted the re­cent wild­fires in the Wine Coun­try and nearby ar­eas that killed 43 peo­ple and torched at least 245,000 acres in six coun­ties: “The cat­a­strophic wild­fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Oc­to­ber 2017 fur­ther demon­strate the enor­mous de­struc­tion and loss of life that wild­fires can cause.”

The five PUC com­mis­sion­ers are sched­uled to make a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the far-reach­ing new rules as soon as Dec. 14.

The pro­posal would set up a high fire-threat district where stricter fire- safety reg­u­la­tions would ap­ply. The bound­aries of the district are not yet firmly es­tab­lished, but­would in­clude mul­ti­ple ar­eas deemed haz­ardous by the U. S. For­est Ser­vice; the state Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion Depart­ment, also known as Cal Fire; and a fire-threat map be­ing fash­ioned by in­de­pen­dent ex­perts on be­half of the PUC.

Un­der prior, less re­stric- tive rules, the most se­vere re­quire­ments for veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance ap­plied pri­mar­ily to 9,600 square miles in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, roughly 5.9 per­cent of the 163,700 square miles that com­prise Cal­i­for­nia’s sur­face area.

The ter­ri­tory cov­ered by the new veg­e­ta­tion clear­ance re­quire­ments would cover about 74,600 square miles — 45.6 per­cent of the state’s to­tal ter­ri­tory. The most rig­or­ous new rules would per­tain to 62,600 square miles in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

De­pend­ing on the power lines’ volt­age, clear­ance be­tween veg­e­ta­tion and trees that once could be as lit­tle as four feet would be a min­i­mu­mof 12 feet. And in in­stances where the min­i­mum clear­ance was 15 feet, the newmin­i­mum­would be 30 feet.

“We are still re­view­ing the pro­posed de­ci­sion,” PG&E spokesman Gre­gory Snap­per said Thurs­day.

The 133-page pro­posal also would re­quire util­i­ties to con­duct an­nual pa­trols, in many in­stances, of over­head elec­tric­ity equipment in cer­tain ru­ral ar­eas.

The PUC said it is prepar- ing a fi­nal draft of a firethreat map, which is due to be pub­lished Nov. 17.

“We have been ac­tively en­gaged with Cal Fire, the PUC, other en­ergy com­pa­nies, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and com­mu­nity groups through­out this pro­ceed­ing to de­velop new util­ity fire-threat maps and new fire-safety reg­u­la­tions that pro­tect our com­mu­ni­ties and our cus­tomers,” Snap­per said.

How­ever, the judge’s rul­ing showed that PG&E con­tested at least four pro­vi­sions be­ing con­sid­ered by the state law judge. San Di- egoGas& Elec­tric con­tested at least eight pro­vi­sions.

“Ul­ti­mately, we will sup­port reg­u­la­tions that re­duce the threats of wild­fires and min­i­mize the im­pact on our cus­tomers and their com­mu­ni­ties,” Snap­per said.

Yet PG&E has in­di­cated that the re­cent Wine Coun­try wild­fires may di­rectly af­fect cus­tomers. Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Geisha Wil­liams said dur­ing a Nov. 2 con­fer­ence call with an­a­lysts that PG&E ratepay­ers face higher bills if the util­ity’s in­sur­ance doesn’t cover all of its costs from wild­fires that torched parts of the North Bay.

PG&E has $800 mil­lion in in­sur­ance to cover any li­a­bil­i­ties for theWine Coun­try fires.

The com­pany stated dur­ing the call that it would ask the PUC to let it boost cus­tomers’ monthly elec­tric­ity bills if ac­tual North Bay fire ex­penses ex­ceed that cov­er­age.

“Our costs over and above in­sur­ance cov­er­age should be shared by all cus­tomers,” Wil­liams said dur­ing the call.

NHAT V. MEYER — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are look­ing into whether fallen trans­form­ers, such as this one in Santa Rosa, and downed lines ig­nited the Wine Coun­try fires.

NHAT V. MEYER — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

In­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pect elec­tri­cal equipment in re­cent fires across the state. The agency that reg­u­lates util­i­ties is con­sid­er­ing tougher safety rules.

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