California Utilities to Cover Power Lines, Expand Weather Monitoring

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — California utilities plan to insulate power lines, increase inspections and build new weather stations in areas at high risk for wildfires in an effort to combat increasingly destructive blazes.

Southern California Edison told legislative employees Monday it wants to spend $582 million to cover some of its power lines and deploy new cameras to cover 90 percent of high-risk areas. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., meanwhile, announced it will inspect 5,500 additional miles of power lines and build 1,300 new weather stations for better forecasting.

"Our practices have to change because the environment is changing," said Don Daigler, director of business resiliency at Southern California Edison.

In the past two years, California has experienced its deadliest and largest wildfires and utilities have faced increasing scrutiny for their equipment's role in sparking blazes. Last month, the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, killing more than 80 people, while the Woolsey Fire ripped through Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Southern California Edison told the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday an outage of its equipment before the Woolsey Fire may have been caused by a guy wire and a jumper making contact. Guy wires are used to provide pole support and jumpers connect two energized lines. The official cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Pacific Gas & Electric, meanwhile, also reported an outage around the time the Camp Fire sparked. The cause of that fire also remains under investigation. Both utilities have been sued.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) crews repair power lines that were destroyed by the Camp Fire on November 21, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A law passed this year requires utilities to submit wildfire mitigation plans to the Public Utilities Commission.

Representatives from Southern California Edison said they began developing the new mitigation plan after last year's Thomas Fire, one of the largest in state history. They submitted the request for $582 million to the PUC in September, before the Woolsey Fire sparked.

The average bill would increase by $1.20 a month and about 81 cents per month for low-income consumers, said Bill Chiu, managing director of grid modification and resiliency.

The utility plans to cover wires considered to be at the highest fire risk, which is about a quarter of its lines. Fires are often caused by debris blowing onto power lines, Chiu said.

The utility has replaced 139 miles of conductors destroyed in last month's fire with covered conductors. The wires are covered by a protective gray tube. Utilities in New England and Australia have used similar wire protections, Chiu said.

PG&E, meanwhile, said it has inspected 350 miles of transmission lines in recent weeks and plans to inspect 5,500 in total beyond routine inspections and maintenance. It is unclear how many miles are inspected normally. It plans to install 600 new cameras and 1,300 new weather stations to better detect dangerous conditions.

The utility also appointed Aaron Johnson, the company's vice president for electric operations, as a rebuilding officer to help with recovery from the Butte County fire. Johnson will work with state and local officials to modernize the energy grid and help provide housing and support services.

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