Three power companies in California to spend $15 billion to mitigate wildfire potential

SDG&E, PG&E, and SCE release their plans for 2021 and 2022

powerline trees
File photo of powerline routed through trees.

Three of the largest power companies in California expect to spend a total of $15 billion over a two-year period, 2021 through 2022, to prevent wildfire ignitions. In state-required updates to their annual wildfire mitigation plans filed with California’s Public Utilities Commission, San Diego Gas and Electric states they will spend $1.3 billion, Pacific Gas and Electric $10.2 billion, and Southern California Edison $3.5 billion.

The power equipment of the three utilities have been responsible for numerous large, disastrous wildfires.

PG&E, for example, expects to make the following improvements to their systems in 2021:

  • Implement a new Wildfire Risk Model that can comprehensively assess and prioritize its safety work, including system hardening and enhanced vegetation management. This builds upon the previous model and uses advanced software and machine learning for predicting fire ignitions and improving fire spread simulations for determining the potential impacts of a wildfire.
  • Install 300 additional weather stations to more precisely forecast the weather that could lead to public safety power shutoff events, to complete the long-term goal of 1,300 total stations.
  • Install more than 260 devices that limit the size of outages;
  • Install and deploy microgrids that use generators to keep the electricity on;
  • Deploy more crews for inspection and restoration efforts;
  • Convert 23 line-miles of overhead powerlines to underground in Butte County;
  • “Harden” 180 miles of high risk lines;
  • Conduct “enhanced vegetation management” on 1,800 miles of high risk lines.

The goal of PG&E’s Meteorology and Fire Science team is to advance operational meteorology and operational decision making to reduce wildfire risk. It is comprised of 15 scientists, most with advanced degrees in scientific fields with diverse backgrounds in operational meteorology, utility meteorology, outage prediction, fire science, data science, cloud computing, atmospheric modeling, application development and data systems development. The team is comprised of alumni from the San Jose State University Fire Weather Research Laboratory (, former wildland firefighters, former National Weather Service forecasters, and Veterans of the Marine Corps and United States Air Force.

Update on fire-related power shutoffs in California

UPDATED at 12:22 p.m. PDT October 10, 2019

Recently updated information about Pacific Gas and Electric’s preemptive power shutoff for much of Northern California includes additional locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and the north coast near Eureka (see map above). This brings the total number of PG&E addresses affected to 800,000, which could translate to approximately two to four million residents.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in Northern California, October 10, 2019.

Below is a zoomed-in map showing the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

PG&E power shutoffs California
PG&E power shutoffs in the Bay Area of California, October 10, 2019.

According to PG&E they have been turning off the power during periods of high wildfire danger since 2013, never before at this magnitude.

San Diego Gas and Electric was one of the pioneers in turning off the power to their customers when the wind blows and has been doing it  for years.

“Moderate Santa Ana winds are expected to sweep through our region starting Thursday and peak on Friday morning, bringing elevated wildfire danger to the backcountry and the potential for Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” SDG&E said in a press release.

About  34,000 SDG&E customers have been notified their electricity may be turned off (see map below).

SDG&E turn off power wind
SDG&E says the areas in yellow could experience public safety power outages during the wind event that will hit San Diego County Thursday and Friday. (SDG&E map updated October 9, 2019.)

And in the Los Angeles area:

The fire danger in Northern California is expected to decrease on Friday but remain elevated in the south part  of the state.

Predicted fire weather for October 10, 2019
Predicted fire weather for Thursday October 10, 2019.
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019
Predicted fire weather for October 11, 2019.

Power company may turn off electricity to 30,000 addresses in Southern California during wind event

SDG&E may suspend electrical service to some customers this week

SDG&E turn off power wind
SDG&E says the areas in yellow could experience public safety power outages during the wind event that will hit San Diego County on Thursday and Friday.(SDG&E map)

Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is not the only power company with plans to turn off the electricity to their customers. San Diego Gas and Electric said they may suspend electrical service to about 30,000 addresses during the wind event on Thursday and Friday of this week. Thinking that their power line infrastructure may not be robust enough to withstand the wind, they want to reduce their liability by de-energizing the power lines, rather than fully hardening their electrical distribution system.

SDG&E was one of the pioneers in turning off the power to their customers when the wind blows and has been doing it  for years. They floated the idea in July, 2009 after their power lines started three massive fires in 2007 , the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon Fires, that burned more than 198,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,500 homes, injured 40 firefighters, and caused two deaths.  The company figured up to 150,000 people could be affected by a proactive power outage in 2009.

SDG&E has been trying for the last 7 years to get their customers to pay $379 million the company incurred in claims from the deadly 2007 fires. They took litigation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled against them on October 7, 2019. After the verdict the company wrote in a news release,  “SDG&E has shown that the fires occurred due to circumstances beyond our control, but nevertheless the application to spread the costs through rates was denied.”

To be fair, SDG&E has taken steps to reduce the chances their power lines will start a fire during strong winds, such as replacing some wooden poles with metal poles. They have also put systems in place to deal with a fire before and after it starts, including making a large firefighting helicopter available beginning in 2010, hiring contract firefighters during extreme fire weather, and installing more than 100 weather stations on their power lines around Southern California.

California power company has a team of six fire coordinators

Randy Lyle is the Fire Program Manager for San Diego Gas and Electric

Randy Lyle, Fire Program Manager
Randy Lyle, Fire Program Manager for SDG&E. Photo: SDG&E.

If a fire flares up anywhere in San Diego or Southern Orange counties, Randy Lyle, the fire program manager for San Diego Gas and Electric, and his team of fire coordinators, will know in real time where it’s breaking out and whether it is burning in proximity to any of the company’s infrastructure.

Lyle was the second fire coordinator hired by SDG&E company to enhance the coordination and partnership with local public safety agencies to better protect communities from wildfires. The fire coordination program was launched in 2004 with one person. Today Randy oversees a team of five fire coordinators – all of whom are veteran firefighters like him.

His team has expertise in a variety of specialties, such as electrical safety, natural gas safety, energy storage safety and fire safety training, fuel treatment, fire planning for projects, and forensic fire investigation.

When Randy joined SDG&E in 2007, he brought with him 32 years of experience in all aspects of wildland fire control, including engine, hand crew, and aerial firefighting, along with expertise in applying fire hazard data and tools to better understand fire risk and fire behavior.

As a CAL FIRE Division Chief, Randy served as the unified incident commander for the Cedar Fire in 2003. That historic fire – ranked as one of the top 5 most destructive wildfires in California history – burned more than 273,000 acres, killed 14 people, including one firefighter, and destroyed more than 2,800 structures.

Recently, we had a conversation with Randy, a San Diego native who loves horses and surfing, about his experience and background and what his team does.

What does it mean to be an SDG&E Fire Coordinator?

Fire coordinators serve as a critical link between fire agencies and SDG&E. They provide situational awareness at times of actual fires to help support emergency response. For example, if a public agency has a request for SDG&E to de-energize a power line near a fire to protect first responders, a fire coordinator will work with our grid operations staff to help coordinate that request.

Fire coordinators also train internal personnel on fire safety and external personnel (first responders) on electrical safety. We are translators of intel into actionable information.

Are fire coordinator positions unique to SDG&E?
Other utilities have similar positions, but their actual duties vary quite a bit from utility to utility.

How did you make the decision to get into this field and when did it all start for you?
I had firemen in my family. I started my fire career with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), six weeks after graduating high school. Growing up here, I remember watching large fires like the Laguna Fire in 1970 as it made news day after day and I was fascinated by its enormity.

What is your most memorable experience as a firefighter? 
I was the CAL FIRE Unified Incident Commander on the 2003 Cedar Fire for the first three days, then transitioned to a Branch Director for the west wind push when I had two Strike Teams trapped by fire in Harrison Park near Julian. I lost radio contact with them and for about two hours, thought that 40 firefighters had perished. Turned out OK in the end. Radios were rendered inoperable, presumably by heavy, dense smoke and heated air.

What is your busiest season?
Peak season is from about September 1 until we get rains in fall or early winter. Typically, any summer day can be an ‘average bad fire day’. There are a few weeks after strong green-up where there will not be any fires because wildland fuels are not cured well enough to dry.

(From SDG&E)

System developed to shut off electricity to broken power line before it hits the ground

It can be done in less than 1.37 seconds

Power Line Shutoff System
SDG&E’s has developed a system that can shut off the electricity to a broken power line before it hits the ground. SDG&E graphic.

Some of the wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes in California in the last two years were caused by broken power lines. A utility that supplies electricity to much of Southern California, San Diego Gas and Electric, has developed a system intended to cut off power to a falling power line before it hits the ground, therefore avoiding a possible ignition.

SDG&E’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

In SDG&E’s video below, they describe the system beginning at 1:40.

If this actually is effective in the real world, it would be a very important method of preventing some wildfires caused by power lines.

Officials investigating the roles of wind and power lines in Northern California wildfires

There is no doubt that after numerous wildfires started Sunday night October 8 north of San Francisco the very strong winds caused them to spread so rapidly that there is no way firefighters could put them out before they grew large. There are reports that the Tubbs Fire between Santa Rosa and Napa burned about 20,000 acres in a few hours.

Many power lines blew down or sparked as electrical conductors brushed together in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

According to the Mercury News:

Emergency dispatchers in Sonoma County received multiple calls of power lines falling down and electrical transformers exploding. In all, according to a review of emergency radio traffic by the Bay Area News Group, Sonoma County dispatchers sent out fire crews to at least 10 different locations across the county over a 90-minute period starting at 9:22 pm to respond to 911 calls and other reports of sparking wires and problems with the county’s electrical system amid high winds.

Officials have not released the causes of most of the fires, but the stock price of Pacific Gas and Electric which supplies electrical power to much of the area dropped 22 percent last week.

Stock price of PG&E
Stock price of PG&E, last two years. CNBC graphic.

On Monday the Cliff Mass Weather and Climate Blog, an excellent source for in-depth analysis of weather events, looked at the conditions that led to the extreme winds when the fires started. Here is an excerpt:

…Although there have been a lot of media reports about windy conditions, few have described the extreme, often unprecedented, nature of the winds on Sunday night and Monday morning (October 8/9th).   Some have even mocked PG&Es claims of hurricane-force winds, suggesting wind speeds of 30-40 mph.

Let’s clarify a few things.  There was a wide range of winds that night, with the strongest winds on ridge tops and on the upper lee slopes of terrain.  Some winds was startling.

For example, at 10:30 PM on 9 Oct 2017 the wind gusted to 96 mph on a 3400 foot peak NE of Geyersville, about 20 miles NNW of downtown Santa Rosa. They reported sustained 74 knots (85 mph).  Those are hurricane force winds (sustained of 64 knots or more).

At the Santa Rosa RAWS station (U.S Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) at 576 ft elevation, the wind accelerated rapidly Sunday night to 68 mph.

wind forecast northern california fires
Desert Research Institute’s forecast model (WRF) at very high resolution (2-km grid spacing). This is their 6-hour forecast for sustained surface winds at 11 PM Sunday October 8. Click to enlarge.

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is still battling over who will pay for the destruction, the company or their customers, caused by the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007 that started from issues with their power lines. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire alone, which started near Santa Ysabel, burned 197,990 acres.

In 2009 SDG&E proposed to implement a system of completely turning off power preemptively to areas where very strong winds are predicted.