California Utilities Plan $15 Billion for Fire Safety Work

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California utilities said they plan to spend $15 billion over the next two years to reduce the risk of their live wires sparking blazes after an historic wildfire season.

PG&E Corp., Edison International’s Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric detailed in filings with state regulators on Friday how they will continue to fire-proof their grids. They said they’re refining their safety work and using new tools such as artificial intelligence software to focus on circuits that are most at risk of igniting a large fire.

More than 4.2 million acres burned last year across California, shattering previous records as bone-dry conditions, freak lightning and violent winds left the state ripe for conflagrations. Five out of six of the state’s largest fires in history occurred last year, although none of them have been linked to utility equipment.

Climate scientists warn that the state is at risk of longer and more intense fire seasons due to extreme heat and drought.

“This risk will continue to grow,” said Matt Pender, director of the community wildfire safety program at PG&E. “It requires focused effort to mitigate that risk.”

California regulators now require utilities to file annual wildfire prevention plans after power lines ignited a series of deadly blazes in 2017 and 2018. Fire liabilities drove PG&E into bankruptcy in 2019, and the company emerged from Chapter 11 last year after having settled claims for $25.5 billion.

Zogg Fire

California investigators are looking at PG&E power lines as a possible cause of the Zogg fire which ignited in September and killed four people. Edison’s equipment is also being looked at as a possible cause of several smaller wildfires in the past few months.

As part of their plans, the utilities say they will work to reduce the size and scope of preemptive blackouts that have been used when high, dry winds hit the state.

PG&E said it estimates its wildfire prevention plan will cost $5 billion this year and $5.2 billion in 2022, with $3 billion earmarked each year for high fire risk areas, according to a statement and regulatory filing. The utility said it will use a new fire risk model to prioritize its safety work including system hardening and tree trimming.

Southern California Edison said its grid hardening and other safety work will result in estimated spending of $3.5 billion in 2021 and 2022. San Diego Gas & Electric said it will spend an estimated $1.3 billion in 2021 and 2022 for work including developing renewable microgrids.

The California Public Utilities Commission will need to approve each utility’s plan.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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