Publicly Owned Utility Wildfire Prevention & Response Strategies

January 2021

As locally governed electricity providers, California’s publicly owned electric utilities (POUs) focus on actions that maintain and improve the safety of their communities and customers, and implement industry best practices and requirements set forth in state laws to minimize the risk of powerline-ignited wildfires. Although the large majority of POU service territories are located in areas with minimal wildfire threat (urban, desert or farmland), all POUs continuously assess the risks that utility lines and equipment pose to their communities. In particular, POUs serving forested areas or urban regions that interface with wildland areas are expanding proactive wildfire prevention and response strategies to protect residents and prevent powerline-ignited wildfires.

POUs Implement Best Practices for Wildfire Prevention and Response Actions

Implementing comprehensive wildfire mitigation plans. Every POU in California has developed a wildfire mitigation plan that outlines the utility’s preventative strategies and programs to minimize the risk of wildfires caused by electrical equipment, while considering the dynamic risks posed by climate change.

Implementing vigorous powerline inspection and maintenance programs. POUs maintain their powerlines and equipment in a manner that minimizes the risk of wildfire caused by those powerlines and equipment, and they have robust programs that regularly inspect their infrastructure to keep their communities safe. If deficiencies are identified, the utility makes repairs or improvements.

Maintaining clearance between powerlines and vegetation. POUs meet stringent vegetation clearance standards and proactively trim vegetation to maintain a safe clearance from powerlines. In accordance with these standards, wider clearances are maintained in threat areas. POUs also are investing in cutting-edge technology, such as drones with cameras or LiDAR, to enhance inspection efforts and identify hazardous trees.

Focusing on technology to maintain situational awareness and improve grid operations. POUs employ a variety of techniques and technologies to improve the safety of the electric grid during specific weather conditions, like “red flag” wind warnings. For example, during high-wind events POUs may increase visual inspection patrols of powerlines to ensure they remain clear of tree branches and other vegetation, or make electrical equipment — such as reclosers — more sensitive to reduce the likelihood of sparking if a tree branch or other wind-blown object comes into contact with a powerline.

Working with local fire departments and providing mutual assistance in emergencies. POUs are locally governed and many are city departments integrated into the overall city government structure. This uniquely enables POUs to have a natural communication path with local fire departments and other public safety officials, enhancing efficient and effective coordination between these entities.

Restoring service after a wildfire. POUs are focused on ensuring electric reliability and safety for customers. Losing access to reliable power can present public health and safety issues. If a wildfire occurs, POUs work diligently to reconnect customers as quickly as possible after ensuring powerlines are safe for re-energizing.

Public Accountability and Review of Wildfire Mitigation Plans

Under state law, POU wildfire mitigation plans must be presented to the utility’s governing board in an appropriately noticed public hearing, and a POU must contract with a qualified independent evaluator to assess the plan’s comprehensiveness. The evaluator’s report must be presented at a public meeting of the POU’s governing board. POUs also must annually submit their plan to the new California Wildfire Safety Advisory Board (WSAB) for review. CMUA has been working closely with the WSAB to ensure that the Board will be able to provide detailed recommendations on each POUs plan in the future.

Maintaining Electric Reliability During a Variety of Weather Scenarios

A tool available to all electric utilities to prevent wildfire is the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), a protocol to de-energize portions of the electric grid. POUs have evaluated the tool but, due to differences in service territories and community preferences, it has not been made a primary solution. Instead, as part of their efforts to balance electric reliability — keeping the lights on 24/7 — with wildfire safety needs, POUs in high-risk areas have focused on alternate solutions during high-risk weather events.