Within a five-year time frame, two different wildfires scorched infrastructure in San Diego Gas & Electric’s (SDG&E’s) service territory and inflicted widespread damage. In 2003, wildfires consumed 280,000 acres, and just four years later, another set of wildfires destroyed an additional 368,000 acres.
During these severe-weather events, high-pressure systems spun in a clockwise fashion over the four corners region of the United States. Santa Ana winds cascaded down the mountains and into San Diego, California, and by the time they reached the coast, the winds increased to 70 mph or 80 mph. Combined with soaring temperatures, these weather conditions packed a powerful punch to San Diego and the nearby areas.
Following these two wildfire events, SDG&E moved to create a company-wide Community Fire Safety Program, which included a wide array of initiatives to address fire safety. These initiatives ranged from the evaluation and hardening of overhead electric facilities in areas known for higher winds and vegetation to the creation of its own weather network. SDG&E also began a detailed inspection and trim cycle under vegetation management, formed a fire awareness and response team comprised of seasoned fire professionals, and developed a public outreach and education program for all customers.
Taking a Proactive Approach
Since 2007, SDG&E has taken a proactive approach to fire prevention and mitigation by implementing various new initiatives and operational methods. The utility hired seasoned firefighting professionals and meteorologists who could provide real-time awareness of the fire danger on a day-by-day and hour-by-hour basis. They also could work with customer service teams to reach out to the public and provide education and awareness on the fire danger and how to mitigate it.
SDG&E also expanded and strengthened its vegetation management program by creating a detailed inspection and trim program that currently covers more than half a million trees within its service territory. By cutting and trimming trees on a regular basis, SDG&E has taken more of a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to the dangers of vegetation as it relates to the overhead electric system.
Finally, SDG&E began looking at the transmission and distribution system to determine how to harden the infrastructure to withstand wildfires. Because winds can blow upwards of 100 mph in some areas of the San Diego area, SDG&E keeps watchful eye on the weather and its effect on its system through the use of a utility-operated weather network. This network of more than 170 weather stations provide SDG&E meteorologists with up-to-date weather information on a 24/7 basis in 10-minute intervals, thereby allowing SDG&E to make critical decisions on the overall safety of its system on a real-time basis and to act accordingly.
Late in 2014, SDG&E developed the FiRM program, which uses the learnings from previous programs to evaluate the performance of its 300,000 overhead poles over time. Through extensive data analysis, SDG&E found poles were not the issue rather the components on the poles (the conductor, splices and insulators), which could not withstand the heat and strong winds.
As a result, SDG&E created a team to explore the reliability of its system in rural areas in more detail. Through the FiRM program, field crews travel into the back country, inspect all circuits and look for ways to improve and harden them so they could withstand winds up 85 mph. In doing so, SDG&E moved to significantly reduce or eliminate sources of ignition from overhead line work and, in turn, lower the public safety risk. In addition, the utility has moved to shut off circuits in areas where the wind values exceed design criteria. As a result, the utility has more control over its system and can protect the public as well as the system as a whole.
During future phases of the project, SDG&E plans to move beyond the highest risk areas to other regions of the service territory.
Creating a New Field Team
As part of its system-hardening program, SDG&E created a new Electric Regional Operations Construction (EROC) team to help train up-and-coming linemen and to provide a new construction work mix for existing journeymen. Currently, this team is preparing to replace 800 to 1,000 wood poles with steel poles and perform the associated reconductoring work.
Through this program, SDG&E rotates apprentices and line assistants through the team on three-month assignments. While workers have the opportunity to do energized and de-energized work on the system, for the most part, the crews try to keep facilities energized, except when a helicopter is setting steel poles or stringing wire.
SDG&E senior leadership views the EROC team as an opportunity for new workers on the distribution crews to gain construction experience alongside journeyman workers. The members of the team are completely mobile and can travel from home to remote operating locations anywhere within the service territory. At any point in time, three four-person overhead line crews and two-person hand-digging crews are working in the back country where there is little to no truck access.
The crews work 10 hours a day, six days a week, as part of the one-year pilot program. So far, SDG&E has invited its line hands and gas construction crew personnel to join the program, and is looking for as many people as possible to work within the EROC group. To make this possible despite the districts’ busy schedules, the workers are engaged in three-month rotations. While this process does increase the administrative burden, it is an effective way to extend the experience across the organization.
When the EROC team started, it had no office space, no vehicles, no tooling and no storeroom. As such, it began working with different groups such as the fleet department to acquire line trucks and bucket trucks, and logistics to obtain tools and material. Because it is a new concept within the company’s operational group, head count could not be increased. By rotating the workers through the EROC group, however, it has eased the burden on the other construction centers, enabling them to free up field crew members.
For more than a year, the team has been working together as part of the pilot project, and it has proven its value in terms of its increased productivity. For example, in just 10 months, the EROC team was able to put in more than 2,500 hours, replace 413 poles and string well more than 113,000 ft of conductor. The team has enough work for three four-person crews, yet it was able to accomplish this output with only two four-person crews the majority of the time.
While the group is small, it is off to a good start. By motivating the workforce with capital construction, it has boosted morale. The members of the EROC team enjoy coming to work, and SDG&E constantly provides them with the necessary tools and materials to keep them moving and up to speed.
The pilot project also has proven to save costs. For example, in a competitive study between internal EROC crews and outside contract crews, the internal crews came in well below the cost of the contract crews. In 2015, EROC linemen replaced 174,893 ft of conductor, set 661 poles and worked 2,876 labor hours. This year, the crews are aiming to replace 1,500 poles.
In the future, SDG&E may expand EROC into regional crews by increasing its staffing. Now that EROC has been ratified as a permanent work group through contract negotiations, the utility may consider hiring additional linemen to fill the need. Through the creation of the EROC team, SDG&E can shift its district crew personnel from maintenance to capital work, thereby reducing O&M spending.
As a result, the utility can use its own internal workforce to get critical compliance projects done in the field while, at the same time, hardening the system against wildfires and building infrastructure to meet future needs.
Joe Vaccaro is the electric transmission and distribution project management operations manager for SDG&E and is a licensed mechanical engineer for SDG&E with more than 35 years of utility experience.
Tim Yuskin is the construction manager for the Electric Regional Operations Construction section for SDG&E. During his 37-year career, he has served as a journeyman lineman, senior line school instructor, construction supervisor and a member of the joint apprenticeship committee.