Work­ing to avoid fires Lodi Elec­tric Util­ity drafts Wild­fire Mit­i­ga­tion Plan

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Oula Miq­bel

Lodi Elec­tric Util­ity shared the sta­tus of their Wild­fire Mit­i­ga­tion Plan with the Lodi City Coun­cil at Tues­day morn­ing’s shirt­sleeve meet­ing at Carnegie Fo­rum.

Elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer Ti­mothy Conn gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on a draft of the plan, which has been sub­mit­ted for eval­u­a­tion.

In Septem­ber 2018, for­mer Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Se­nate Bill 901, which re­quired all util­i­ties to es­tab­lish wild­fire mit­i­ga­tion plans. The plans must be filed with the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion by Jan. 1, 2020.

“We had to put a plan to­gether that has dif­fer­ent re­quired el­e­ments about en­ter­prise-wide safety risks,” Conn said.

The man­date fol­lowed the de­struc­tive wild­fire sea­son of 2018, con­sid­ered the worst year for fires in Cal­i­for­nia to date, ac­cord­ing to the Wild­land Fire Sum­mary by the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­ter. The re­port stated 1.8 mil­lion acres burned across Cal­i­for­nia in 2018.

Last year was also Cal­i­for­nia’s dead­li­est for fires, with more than 100 peo­ple killed — 85 in the Camp Fire that tore through Par­adise and neigh­bor­ing towns last fall.

As they cre­ate their plans, util­i­ties are re­quired to out­line veg­e­ta­tion re­moval and elec­tric­ity shutoff poli­cies, to be ap­proved by the CPUC. The goal is to en­sure more ac­count­abil­ity in the aftermath of a dev­as­tat­ing blaze.

Since the Lodi Elec­tric Util­ity did not have an ex­ist­ing wild­fire mit­i­ga­tion plan, staff drafted a plan that is cur­rently be­ing re­viewed by an in­de­pen­dent eval­u­a­tor, a stip­u­la­tion of SB 901.

“Since this is LEU’s inau­gu­ral un­der­tak­ing of the plan, in­ter­nally, be­hind the scenes, we have been rac­ing to get this draft re­viewed be­fore we can present it to the pub­lic,” Conn said.

Lodi Elec­tric reached out to the Lodi Fire Depart­ment, Lodi Po­lice Depart­ment, Lodi Pub­lic Works, the city man­ager, city at­tor­ney, and Parks, Re­cre­ation and Cul­tural Ser­vices staff for feed­back and com­ments, Conn said.

“We chose to do this in­ter­nally to save the city money. The num­bers that (were) floated to hire an ex­ter­nal party to draft this com­plete plan were in the $300,000’s,” he said.

Be­fore SB 901 was signed into law, Lodi Elec­tric was not re­quired to form a wild­fire mit­i­ga­tion plan be­cause the city was not at high risk of a dis­as­trous wild­fire. A CPUC map from Jan­uary 2018 showed Lodi was not lo­cated in a high fire threat district.

“Wild­fires are con­sid­ered a great risk for util­i­ties with miles of hardto-ac­cess lines travers­ing dead forests and var­ied ter­rain, in sparsely pop­u­lated ar­eas with min­i­mal vis­i­bil­ity,” Conn said.

But Lodi has a dense ur­ban area that is bor­dered to the north by the Mokelumne River and a flat ter­rain that would give bet­ter ac­cess to fire­fight­ers.

“We are also sur­rounded by miles of grapes, which pro­vide mois­ture con­tent and are con­sid­ered an ex­cel­lent fire­break,” he said.

Lodi Elec­tric also ac­tively mon­i­tors veg­e­ta­tion and the dis­tance be­tween trees and power lines, and has a treetrim­ming pro­gram to pre­vent tree fires, Conn said.

“Most of our cus­tomers may not like the tree trim­ming be­cause of the aes­thet­ics, but once we ex­plain why we do it they un­der­stand it’s a nec­es­sary mea­sure,” he said.

PG&E came un­der fire last week when they cut power to more than 700,000 cus­tomers across the state. The com­pany said it did so be­cause of dan­ger­ous wind fore­casts.

“Cal­i­for­nia de­vel­oped its stan­dard for util­ity con­struc­tion, and they built a code for how strong util­ity lines have to be built to. The main thresh­old for lines in this cat­e­gory of the state is a wind ve­loc­ity of 56 miles per hour,” Conn said.

His­tor­i­cally, Lodi has never im­ple­mented a pub­lic safety power shutoff, but the plan out­lines how the util­ity would pro­ceed if it ever needs to.

Fall brings higher fre­quen­cies of north wind events, so dry fu­els can burn quickly and north winds can push a fire out of con­trol and cause wild­fire con­di­tions to change rapidly, said me­te­o­rol­o­gist Alan Rep­pert of Ac­cuweather, a pri­vate fore­cast­ing firm.

“No util­ity is im­mune to fire. Lodi is in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory, es­pe­cially per­tain­ing to wild­fires. Our risk is tremen­dously lower be­cause of our wa­ter re­sources our fire­fight­ers and our ter­rain,” Conn said.

Mayor Pro Tem­pore Doug Kuehne asked LEU Di­rec­tor Jeff Berkheimer how the city could sep­a­rate it­self from PG&E.

“Since we have our elec­tric util­ity, is there a way we can dis­en­gage from PG&E when they de­cide to do a shut-off ?” Kuehne said.

The util­ity is a me­tered cus­tomer of the PG&E sub-trans­mis­sion lines — un­der­ground trans­mis­sion lines that travel from sub­sta­tions in San Joaquin County to sub­sta­tions in Calav­eras or Tuolumne coun­ties. Lodi also uses the com­pany’s power lines to bring en­ergy to the city from their grid in the Cen­tral Val­ley, Berkheimer said.

“We do not have sig­nif­i­cant, in-area re­sources to cover peak load,” he said. “For us to have the abil­ity to op­er­ate out­side the sphere of in­flu­ence of PG&E, we would need to have trans­mis­sion ac­cess.”

Lodi Elec­tric could cre­ate an en­ergy park sim­i­lar to Ro­seville, which has ac­cess to it’s own en­ergy re­sources, as well as direct own­er­ship and op­er­a­tional con­trol of their en­ergy source.

Lodi City Man­ager Steve Sch­wabauer said the city has ex­plored uti­liz­ing White Slough as a pos­si­ble en­ergy park, but the costs to achieve that would be in the $20 to $30 mil­lion range, and would only pro­duce enough power equiv­a­lent to 2 or 3 days within a year.

“It’s an out­ra­geous cost for the risk you are look­ing to mit­i­gate, and it is a cost that gets funded by our ratepay­ers,” he said.

The city also saw great op­po­si­tion from neigh­bor­ing landown­ers while ex­plor­ing us­ing White Slough as a backup power source, he said.

Both Kuehne and Sch­wabauer agreed that the city would need to re­visit po­ten­tial fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies for al­ter­na­tive sources of en­ergy as Cal­i­for­nia braces for fu­ture wild­fires.

“I have a sense that this is not go­ing to get bet­ter for us. It seems like it is only go­ing to be get­ting worse, and I think there are in­cre­men­tal steps we can take over time so it is not one big cost,” Kuehne said.

The city has de­ter­mined that in the event of a power shut off af­fect­ing Lodi, a backup gen­er­a­tor is lo­cated at Hutchins Street Square and the Square could be des­ig­nated as a power source for the com­mu­nity, Sch­wabauer said.

Lodi Elec­tric is ex­pected to get feed­back from the in­de­pen­dent au­di­tor on their plan in the com­ing weeks.

“We are hop­ing to have a fin­ished project for the coun­cil to vote on by early Novem­ber. Once it is ap­proved, we’ll dis­trib­ute it to the pub­lic,” Berkheimer said.

The LEU has a draft avail­able for the pub­lic to view at

NEWS-SENTINEL PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY BEA AHBECK

Elec­tric Util­ity Di­rec­tor Jeff Berkheimer is pic­tured at the Lodi Elec­tric Util­ity com­pany Tues­day.

Elec­tric Util­ity Di­rec­tor Jeff Berkheimer is pic­tured at the Lodi Elec­tric Util­ity com­pany Tues­day.

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