Energy companies are spending millions to reduce the risk of wildfires

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Private electric utilities in the Pacific Northwest are planning tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to reduce the risk of their power lines catching wildfires during extreme weather conditions.

Utilities such as Pacific Power, Avista, Idaho Power, Portland General Electric, and Puget Sound Energy must either submit wildfire mitigation plans or submit them voluntarily. The 2022 editions are now public, the Northwest News Network reported.

These reports show significant increases in spending on strengthening infrastructure, removing trees near power lines, and installing systems to instantly shut down circuits if a fault is detected during a storm. Pacific Power, for example, said it projects $473 million in wildfire protection spending over the next five years. PGE, with a much smaller service area, estimated $32 million in operating and capital costs for the wildfire program this year alone.

Eventually, utilities will attempt to recover these costs from customers’ monthly bills. Proposed increases in electricity rates pending before the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission already include some wildfire mitigation costs.

“We define a risk tree as anything dead, dying or ill that can hit a power line,” David James, wildfire resiliency manager at Spokane-based Avista Utilities, said Wednesday at a Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission oversight hearing. “To date we have removed over 4,000 trees – 4,416 trees. That’s just amazing.”

At the same virtual meeting, executives from Pacific Power and Puget Sound Energy described investments that pretty much every major Western utility is making to keep the grid from starting wildfires and to keep transient fires from disrupting power. Measures to harden infrastructure include installing sheathed wires, relocating power lines and replacing some wooden transmission towers with steel. On rare occasions, overhead lines are replaced with underground lines, but this is expensive.

In Oregon, lawmakers last year required electric utilities to submit an annual wildfire mitigation plan. Last week, the Oregon Public Utility Commission approved the 2022 wildfire plans prepared by its regulated private utilities Pacific Power, PGE and Idaho Power. The latter’s approval came with the caveat that Idaho Power would need to provide additional information to separate costs between its Idaho and eastern Oregon customer bases.

“We recognize the tremendous strides Oregon utilities have made and broadly endorsed the plans, but also recognize that they must continue to improve and adapt to meet the needs of communities and keep pace with evolving risks to hold,” said PUC Chair Megan Decker in a prepared statement.

Preemptive power shutdown protocols formalized

The wildfire plans also detail what combination of drought, heat and predicted high winds would prompt Northwest electric companies to preemptively shut down power as a last resort to prevent fire outbreaks. This “last resort” has become increasingly common in California after several deadly wildfires that have been blamed on high winds and downed power lines.

The strategy was first triggered in Oregon during the 2020 Labor Day firestorm. PGE preemptively reduced sap for approximately 5,000 customers on the slopes of Mount Hood on September 7, 2020.

PGE’s planning ahead of the 2022 fire season identified more high-risk neighborhoods where it would consider shutting down power ahead of another potential firestorm. These areas include portions of Portland’s West Hills, homes at the foot of the hills around Estacada and Scotts Mills, and the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge.

Similarly, Pacific Power has identified a number of locations in its Oregon service area where it would preemptively shut down power under extreme weather and fire risk conditions. These include rural areas around the Hood River, Grants Pass, Shady Cove, Cave Junction and Myrtle Creek.

Now the protocols for the so-called “public safety power cuts” are coming to Washington state, though mostly not in time for this fire season.

“When we are faced with a catastrophic event, there is a place for the shutdown to be proactive,” said Avista’s James. “We’re working on it. We believe this is part of our future.”

Likewise, Puget Sound Energy is working to formalize pre-emptive blackout criteria for a high-risk area it serves around Cle Elum in Kittitas County. The Bellevue, Washington-based utility has scheduled a June 8 town hall meeting in Cle Elum to gather customer feedback.

Pacific Power has a plan for the foothills west of Yakima. Relatively few customers, just over 700, may be affected in the corridor of State Highway 410 around the community of Nile, Pacific Power vice president Allen Berreth told the Washington Utilities Commission on Wednesday. He said his utility company had never previously activated a public safety shutdown in Washington.

WUTC Commissioner Ann Rendahl repeatedly asked utility executives appearing before the panel how they would notify and support service providers such as fire departments who might be disrupted at a critical moment, or medically vulnerable customers in such an event. Power outages are especially tough for people who rely on electrically-powered medical equipment to stay in their own homes, she said.

Berreth responded that his utility company, like others, has a plan to set up makeshift shelters in safer locations where customers can charge their phones, cool down or plug in their medical devices.

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