Planning to significantly accelerate the undergrounding of powerlines in high fire-risk areas in 2022, Pacific Gas and Electric Company officials said this is part of a comprehensive set of actions to provide safe, reliable, and affordable energy amid a changing climate and evolving wildfire threat.
As part of its 2022 Wildfire Mitigation Plan (WMP) released recently, PG&E plans to underground at least 175 miles of powerlines this year. The company plans to further increase the pace to complete approximately 3,600 miles by 2026, or roughly one-third of its overall 10,000-mile undergrounding program announced last summer.
This is the largest effort in the nation to underground powerlines as a wildfire risk reduction measure. Beyond dramatically reducing wildfire risk, undergrounding reduces the need for trimming and removing trees—preserving communities’ beauty and natural environment—and over time reduces costs of vegetation management work.
New Long-Term and Near-Term Solutions
As PG&E pursues undergrounding as a long-term, permanent wildfire risk reduction measure, it will also expand its Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings program in 2022 to reduce the risk of ignitions from its electric equipment in the short term. Together, these programs are designed to deliver greater risk reduction for every dollar spent.
Funding for PG&E’s wildfire mitigation activities are addressed in part in its 2023 General Rate Case (GRC). PG&E submitted program and forecast updates to its 2023 GRC with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Even with the improved risk reduction, GRC-related combined bill impact estimates for customers remain essentially flat over the 2023-2026 period compared to PG&E’s original June 30, 2021 GRC proposal.
“PG&E has taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop, and our Wildfire Mitigation Plan for 2022 details the work we are doing right now to make that stand a reality. Undergrounding powerlines and expanding Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings represent the best mix of long- and near-term solutions to make it safer every day for our hometowns, while keeping our customers’ energy costs and bills as low as possible,” said PG&E Corporation CEO Patti Poppe.
Near-Term Wildfire Protections
Expanding Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings: Piloted in 2021, these new safety settings provide additional safeguards against fire ignitions by rapidly and automatically shutting off power when objects such as a tree or branch fall onto a powerline. These settings decreased CPUC-reportable ignitions on enabled circuits in high fire-risk areas by 80 percent during the pilot in 2021, compared to the prior three-year average. PG&E plans to expand this program across all 25,500 distribution line miles in high fire-risk areas, as well as select adjacent areas in proximity to high fire-risk areas. Improvements in 2022 are designed to reduce the number of customers impacted, perform rapid and safe power restoration, and improve customer communication and resources. As a result of changes made last year, average customer outage durations on these circuits decreased by 40 percent.
Improving Public Safety Power Shutoffs
PG&E uses PSPS as a last resort during extreme weather conditions to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire, while also minimizing the impact on customers. PG&E’s experienced meteorologists use cutting-edge weather models, using a network of advanced weather stations to forecast risk on a granular basis and factoring in vegetation in proximity to overhead electrical lines. PSPS events are scoped using advanced risk models and more than 1,000 sectionalizing devices to surgically target power shutoffs. PG&E is reducing risk with PSPS events on a much more targeted basis for PG&E’s customers and hometowns.
Improving Situational Awareness and Forecasting
PG&E uses state-of-the-art weather forecasting, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to help detect, prevent, and respond to the risk of wildfires. In 2022, PG&E plans to install 98 high-definition wildfire cameras, adding to the 502 installed since 2018. The company also plans to install or optimize 100 weather stations in 2022, expanding on the more than 1,300 weather stations installed since 2018, which is approximately one station every 20 line miles in high fire-risk areas.
Crews inspect and identify maintenance on distribution and transmission circuit miles in PG&E’s service area including high fire-risk areas on a recurring cycle using various patrol types. Enhanced Vegetation Management (EVM) goes above and beyond regulatory requirements for distribution lines in high fire-risk areas by expanding minimum clearances, removing overhanging branches and assessing strike potential trees in high fire-risk areas. Since the EVM program began in 2019, PG&E has completed more than 6,300 miles of EVM work. PG&E plans to continue these efforts in 2022 by performing 1,800 miles of EVM work.
Keeping Customers and Stakeholders Informed
PG&E’s WMP is subject to review by the state’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety. In parallel, the CPUC’s open, transparent, and public review of PG&E’s 2023 GRC proposal includes public participation hearings across the service area, scheduled in March, as well as evidentiary hearings where PG&E and all interested parties testify in a public proceeding. The CPUC then issues a final decision authorizing the amounts PG&E collects from its customers.
Additional Longer-Term Solutions
Grid Design and System Hardening: In addition to undergrounding, hardening plans for overhead infrastructure include installing stronger poles and covered lines, making at least four additional temporary distribution microgrids operationally ready, and operating two new remote grids. In 2022, PG&E plans to complete system hardening projects on 470 miles of distribution powerlines, including undergrounding. The company also will install additional automated devices that allow it to sectionalize the grid to reduce the customer impacts of PSPS.
Asset Management and Inspections: PG&E’s inspection programs use multiple methods to gather data, including patrol, physical testing of poles, ground, aerial, climbing, infrared and LiDAR. For 2022, PG&E plans to complete inspections of transmission and distribution structures in extreme fire-threat areas, which includes more than 390,000 distribution poles and nearly 39,000 transmission structures.