California Regulators Consider New Rules for Powering Down the Grid to Stop Fires

A new CPUC proposal could set stricter rules for “de-energizing” power lines to prevent a repeat of the deadly Camp Fire.

As evidence mounts that a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission line failure caused last month’s deadly Camp Fire, and many of the state’s most destructive wildfires of the past two years, California regulators are poised to take a much deeper look at the controversial strategy of pre-emptively de-energizing power lines to possibly prevent future disasters.

That’s the goal of a proposed order instituting a rulemaking (PDF) that’s now being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission. The proposal, which could be voted on as early as Thursday, would open a new proceeding for the CPUC to “examine its rules allowing electric utilities under the Commission’s jurisdiction to de-energize power lines in case of dangerous conditions that threaten life or property in California.”

The CPUC has been scrambling over the past month to institute a host of new regulations and policies to manage the utility-wildfire nexus. These include several provisions passed into law by the state legislature in September, aimed at containing PG&E’s risk of going bankrupt if it’s found liable for last year’s deadly Tubbs Fire in California wine country, in addition to the dozen smaller fires that state investigators have already concluded were caused by the utility’s equipment.

The new de-energizing proposal takes aim not at protecting utilities from liability, but preventing wildfires in the first place. As we’ve noted in previous coverage, California’s utilities have had the authority to issue “public safety power shutoffs” of certain parts of their grid during times of high fire risk, in the event of high winds and dry conditions, since last year.

Before the Camp Fire started, PG&E considered, but ultimately decided against, powering down its grid in the areas affected by the fire, on the grounds that conditions hadn’t risen to the threat level required to institute a shutoff. That decision has come under harsh scrutiny since PG&E reported that one of its high-voltage transmission lines had suffered an outage at a time and place close to where investigators say the fire began.

Since then, more evidence has emerged that PG&E’s transmission line was at fault for causing the fire. The latest news came over the weekend, when NBC Bay Area reported that investigators have determined that a steel hook, holding a power line insulator suspended from the transmission tower in question, cracked and failed on the morning the fire started.

Read more here.