San Diego Gas & Electric, the recognized leader among California’s utilities in wildfire safety, on Wednesday detailed a handful of wildfire response measures added in the last year, a period in which the state’s investor-owned utilities have faced elevated scrutiny over deadly wildfires that have also scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.
The measures highlighted largely focus on response once a fire starts.
“As good as we have been over the last 10 years, and as much investment as we have done, we cannot be good enough when it comes to protecting our communities,” said Caroline Winn, SDG&E’s chief operating officer, from a podium in an airplane hangar.
California is approaching the one-year anniversary of the deadliest fire in its history: The Camp Fire killed 85 people and pushed Pacific Gas & Electric — whose equipment caused it — toward bankruptcy.
Like PG&E and Southern California Edison, SDG&E has faced legal challenges over its wildfire preparedness and handling of equipment. But among the state's investor-owned utilities, SDG&E has generally been commended for its more recent efforts. The utility has invested about $1.5 billion to date in wildfire prevention technologies, with $1 billion concentrated in the last decade and more recent proposals including efforts such as battery-supported microgrids.
The utility on Wednesday announced a partnership with the County of San Diego on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter — which provided Winn's backdrop — that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection will have dispatch authority over for fighting regional fires. According to Winn, the helicopter can fly at speeds of 140 miles per hour, even with a full load of 850 gallons of water. It can refill that water in 45 seconds. The Black Hawk comes in addition to another SDG&E fire-fighting airplane that’s available for dispatch year-round.
In addition to fighting fires from the sky, Winn said SDG&E has invested in a “tactical command vehicle,” which the utility said will allow it to deploy teams into fires faster, while maintaining internet and satellite phone communication.
An SDG&E grant also funded about 400 “Map Books” that divide its service territory into grids. SDG&E hopes their use will allow authorities to more quickly identify areas for evacuation. The utility distributed approximately 400 of those books to county fire and law enforcement agencies, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and fire departments on nearby military bases.
In terms of preparation, SDG&E said it will hold “Wildfire Mitigation and Resiliency Fairs” in the next two months to educate the public about wildfire response and power shutoffs, a tool regulators first approved for SDG&E that is now used by the state’s other utilities during periods of intense wildfire conditions. SDG&E also set up two new information centers — bringing its total to 11 — where customers can charge devices when power shutoffs persist for 24 hours or more.
The latest announcements from SDG&E are just a small slice of the recent plans hatched by California utilities and state policymakers to cope with the state's increasing threat from wildfires. All three of the state’s investor-owned utilities have asked regulators to approve higher profits to deal with wildfire-related risks. Rate increases that PG&E recently requested would bump up customer bills by nearly $23 per month, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Last month Governor Gavin Newsom also signed legislation that created two funds totaling $21 billion for utility wildfire expenses. Crafters of the law hope it will keep SDG&E and SCE from PG&E’s fate. The law's “liquidity fund” offers utilities short-term loans to pay for wildfire costs. And if they meet certain terms on wildfire safety, SDG&E and SCE — and PG&E once it crawls out of its current predicament — can put money into the other fund to pay for possible wildfire liability claims racked up in the future.
That move, however, will have to be complemented by others. PG&E has estimated its liability from current fires at over $30 billion, a sum that wouldn't be covered by the two new funds combined even if PG&E could access that money. And as policymakers and utilities continue to grapple with the ever-growing threat of climate-change-fueled wildfires, California power customers are learning to grow accustomed to power shutoffs.