CPUC Approves New Utility Wildfire Mitigation Plans and De-energization Guidelines

In preparation for this year’s wildfire season the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued decisions this week approving with some modifications the proposed 2019 wildfire mitigation plans submitted by the state’s investor owned utilities and independent transmission owners, and new de-energization protocols applicable to pre-emptive power shutoffs during high fire threat conditions.

The wildfire mitigation plans were mandated by Senate Bill 901 (Ch.262, Stats 2018) which established a detailed list of requirements aimed at improving wildfire prevention and mitigation, and reporting requirements for improved analysis and accountability over time. In addition to approving individual utility wildfire mitigation plans, the CPUC issued a separate Guidance Decision addressing issues common to all. The plans address vegetation management, system hardening measures, such as replacing existing electric lines with covered conductors designed to prevent ignitions, new inspection programs, and “situational awareness” technologies such as weather stations, high definition cameras, and use of computer modeling, weather and wind data and machine learning to predict where wildfires are most likely to strike.

In order to ensure improvement over time, the Guidance Decision directs the utilities to track data and assess outcomes, so that each year’s plan reflects the previous year’s lessons. Instead of following the historical practice of quantifying “inputs” such as tree removal statistics, the Guidance Decision calls for metrics that focus on outcomes – effectiveness of the plan in reducing the risk of wildfire ignition and spread. Noting that strict statutory timelines for the 2019 plans limited its ability to provide a comprehensive treatment of the issues this year, the Guidance Decision “contains many substantive and procedural requirements for future plans based on lessons learned this year.”

In a closely related proceeding, the CPUC has also issued a new Decision Adopting De-Energization (Public Safety Power Shut-off) Guidelines updating existing shut-off guidelines and establishing new communication and notification protocols to enable coordination between agencies and avoid unintended consequences. Recognizing that shut-offs will likely occur more often as a targeted tool for managing wildfire risk, the CPUC protocols will require coordination between utilities, critical service providers, and local governments. The utilities will align messaging and outreach with the California Office of Emergency Services and engage in public education campaigns to help the public prepare for de-energization events. The Guidelines are provided in Appendix A of the decision and Appendix B outlines issues to be addressed in Phase 2 of this proceeding.

Ellison Schneider Harris & Donlan attorneys are actively following these and other wildfire-related proceedings at the CPUC, other agencies and the California Legislature.

Contacts:Andy Brown, Lynn Haug, Samantha Neumyer, Ron Liebert