California’s big utilities vow to spend billions on wildfire mitigation

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Electrical lines in the San Gabriel Mountains. Photos by Saul Gonzalez.

On a rural road in the town of Acton, about an hour north of Los Angeles on the edge of the High Desert, utility crews are unspooling a long line of new electrical wire. 

The wire’s being hoisted to a worker standing in a cherry picker 30 feet above the ground. He then attaches the wire to the cross-bars of a wooden electrical pole that has its power turned off.  


Edison crews replacing older electrical wires with new insulated wires in Acton.

Southern California Edison is replacing bare, metallic electrical wire with aluminum strands coiled around steel. Essentially: insulation.

“That's very effective to protect against contact from foreign objects, stuff that gets flown into the line under high wind conditions: tree branches, palm fronds, metallic balloons and so forth,” said Edison engineer Bill Chiu.

That insulation, which Edison wants to add to hundreds of miles of power lines, is all about protecting the wire and the electricity flowing through it. The company hopes this new wire, with that insulation, will keep its power lines from sparking what could be California’s next monster wildfire.


New insulated wire being strung. 

The state determined that last year’s Camp Fire was caused by PG&E’s transmission lines, and an investigation by the Ventura Fire Department concluded that the 2017 Thomas Fire was caused by So Cal Edison equipment.

With wildfire season approaching again, California’s big utilities are vowing to spend billions of dollars on what’s called wildfire mitigation -- basically hardening their infrastructure to reduce the risk that it might cause a blaze. 

Why now?

The Camp and Thomas fires were a big motivator. Then there are concerns about climate change, and worries about corporate liability and possible charges that the utilities didn’t do enough to stop wildfires. 

What are some of the challenges that Edison faces when it comes to wildfire hardening?

The sheer enormity of its operations.

Edison is the second largest utility in California, with more than 14 million customers in a 50,000 square mile area, and about a third of Edison’s infrastructure is considered to be in high fire-risk areas. 

Why not bury the electrical lines?

Time and expense. It would take several fire seasons to bury the lines, and cost millions and millions more.

What else is the company doing to prevent wildfires?

It’s looking to cut back or remove 7,500 so-called “hazard trees” that are considered too close to equipment in its service areas.

It also wants to install over 800 miniature weather stations and 160 high definition cameras to monitor potential fire conditions in the field, and hire meteorologists and fire experts.


Edison’s command center in Irwindale

How much is this wildfire work going to cost and who picks up the bill?

Edison says it could spend over $680 million dollars on fire mitigation.

“This is something we expect to pass on to our customers over time,” said Edison senior vice president Phil Herrington, who estimates it will average a little over a dollar a month on an average customer’s electricity bill.


Edison’s Vice President Phil Herrington

PG&E declared bankruptcy because of the tens of billions of dollars of liability costs associated with the Camp Fire and other blazes. The CEO of Edison’s parent company has said his utility could be just one or two wildfires away from the same fate.

“I do think this is the cost of operating a system safely, and it’s one that we feel really is a cost that our customers should bear who are using our system and operating electricity or using electricity from our system,” said Herrington.

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Kathryn Barnes

Reporter:
Saul Gonzalez