Mother Nature is fickle. She can be a wonderful friend or a fearsome adversary, depending on the day, or even the hour. While many of us were enjoying the warmest Christmas week ever, for thousands of people living between Denver and Boulder, Colorado, that warm, dry weather created a nightmare. On Dec. 30, several thousand people were told to immediately evacuate their homes and businesses as a 6,000-plus acre wildfire quickly spread into heavily populated areas. Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed before firefighters extinguished the fire with help from a significant snowfall the next day. This Colorado fire was just the last of several wildfires that occurred in 2021 and is among a long list of natural disasters that have plagued not just the U.S., but many parts of the world over the last couple of decades. Wildfires can cause massive destruction to electricity infrastructure, and too often that infrastructure is discovered to be the initial source of the fire. When that’s the case, the loss of infrastructure becomes a secondary problem for the utility that owns and operates the T&D grid.
It’s unfortunate that early news reports from Colorado said the fire started from a downed powerline. This was reported before officials even began to investigate the fire’s cause, and investigators have since ruled out downed powerlines. The fact that the electric utility was initially blamed, however, is an indication of the difficult situation some utilities face when trying to provide safe, reliable and affordable power.
Affordability is definitely at stake for some Western U.S. utilities that must contend with wildfire risks. On Dec. 16, 2021, Southern California Edison (SCE) became the latest utility to pay hefty fines and penalties for its role in five 2017 and 2018 wildfires that together burned more than 380,000 acres and destroyed thousands of homes. The utility’s settlement with the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) requires its shareholders to pay a $110 million penalty to California’s general fund and $65 million toward improved safety measures. The settlement also prevents SCE from passing along to its customers $375 million in costs incurred due to fire-related insurance claims. The complete settlement carries a price tag of $550 million. That’s a lot of money, most of which won’t be available for SCE to invest in technologies and other measures that will reduce the risk of future wildfires.
SCE’s recent settlement is just one of several similar settlements in California. The California PUC reached a $125 million settlement, also in December, with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) for the 2019 Kincade Fire, which was PG&E’s most recent but not its first wildfire payout. In mid-2020, the utility emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy attributed to more than $30 billion in liabilities from 2017 and 2018 wildfires started by its powerlines.
It’s easy to see why California utilities have taken the lead on wildfire mitigation strategies. The recent Colorado wildfire illustrates, however, that other U.S. utilities also must take the risk seriously. Extended droughts (blamed primarily on climate change) in many parts of the country make numerous utilities vulnerable to wildfire risks. Xcel Energy, which serves customers in eight states, including Colorado, recognized its vulnerability and in 2020 filed a comprehensive wildfire mitigation plan with Colorado regulators. The utility has aggressively implemented that plan.
It’s also easy to see why T&D World readers are especially interested in utility best practices for wildfire mitigation and response. The Wildfire section on T&D World’s website is one of our most visited pages and our free "Wildfire Risk Mitigation Volume 2 eBook" released in April 2021 has been a huge success. If you want to learn how Bonneville Power Administration, SDG&E, SCE and Bear Valley Electric are addressing wildfire issues, you should download it. As I mentioned, it’s free.
We published several wildfire-related stories in T&D World in 2021, and as the editorial team plans its 2022 content, wildfire stories will be an even bigger part of our coverage. We are putting together a special supplement in May’s print and digital issues, as well as planning a full-day virtual event covering the topic.
Utilities and the solution providers with which they partner are creating and applying technologies and processes that are making great strides in wildfire prevention and management. Many of these utilities and companies are sharing their strategies and lessons learned with T&D World so that we can share them with you. While they are the real champions in this fight, we at T&D World are honored to be able to play a small part in helping protect lives and property from wildfires. If you have wildfire stories to share with us or wildfire-related topics you’d like for us to cover, let us know. You can reach out to the editorial team through the “Contact Us” feature at the bottom of our home page.