- Investor-owned utility Southern California Edison (SCE) is tackling a host of near-term and urgent climate adaptation measures as it becomes clear that the impacts of climate change are being felt sooner than anticipated, utility President and CEO Kevin Payne told regulators at a Wednesday meeting.
- Along with programs to prevent wildfires and other measures that SCE will focus on for the next several years, the utility also has its eye on longer-term challenges, according to Payne, like ensuring its system is designed and capable of operating in more extreme conditions.
- Utilities in California face numerous challenges when it comes to addressing the safety and resiliency of their infrastructure, including the fact that resources are stretched very thin at the moment, Kevin Geraghty, senior vice president of electric operations and chief safety officer at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), said at the meeting. "Something as simple as getting iPads to help our field teams do patrols is starting to be challenging," he added.
Wildfires burned over more than 4.2 million acres in California in 2020, marking a record-breaking fire season. Utilities, meanwhile, are gearing up to spend billions of dollars to address this risk in their service areas. Earlier this year, investor-owned utilities outlined plans to spend nearly $11 billion over two years on fire prevention programs, in annual plans filed with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). These include measures like removing trees and other vegetation that could damage power lines, inspecting equipment, and investing in other ways to harden the system.
At Wednesday's meeting at the CPUC, members of SCE's and SDG&E's boards of directors briefed regulators on the range of safety issues they are addressing on their systems. Meetings like this are critical to keeping regulators abreast with utility actions, CPUC Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said, adding that he would like to have the commission meet with utility board members on an annual basis.
SCE expects to meet nearly all of its wildfire mitigation plan targets for this year, and has seen positive outcomes from some of its strategies, according to utility representatives — for instance, in 2021, circuits with covered conductors experienced 69% fewer electrical faults as compared to bare circuits in high wildfire risk areas.
At the same time, SCE has not seen a noticeable decline in the number of ignitions it recorded in 2020 and 2021, as compared to prior years, which the utility thinks could in part be because of the recent drought and dry fuel conditions in its service area.
However, the consequences of wildfires associated with its equipment have reduced — in 2019 and 2020, the number of structures destroyed by those fires decreased 95% over the previous two years.
When it comes to climate adaptation, the utility is currently focused on measures that need to be handled in the near term, like installing covered conductors and mitigating the risk of extreme weather it's already seeing, SCE's Payne said.
In the longer term, the utility will need to ensure its system is designed and capable of operating at higher high temperatures, lower low temperatures and in more extreme conditions, according to Payne. This is especially important given SCE's vision of a highly electrified future, he added, with a grid powered by clean energy to fuel sectors like transportation, as well as building heating and cooling.
"[It's] absolutely critical that we have a capable, resilient grid that customers will have confidence in, and so we need to secure it and make it safe immediately — and we also need to plan for that very different future that will come with even more climate change," he said.
However, when it comes to wildfire mitigation and other safety work, the biggest challenge utilities face is in terms of finding qualified people, SDG&E's Geraghty said.
"The demand for utility workers is high, especially in California, as we focus on the safety of our systems, building resilience into them. We're also planning and building out those systems of tomorrow, as we think about climate change," he said.
In addition, the utility has seen supply chain challenges for equipment ranging from transformers to iPads. The global semiconductor chip shortage has rippled through the automotive industry, impacting appliance manufacturers and more, CNBC reported.
"Lead times are expanding, and it seems like anything with a computer chip these days is taking longer, much longer, to get to the dock," Geraghty said.