- Oregon utility regulators this week announced the approval of wildfire mitigation plans submitted by PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric (PGE) and Idaho Power, the first such approvals since the state passed legislation that created formal standards for electric utility wildfire plans.
- Idaho Power's wildfire plan, however, was approved with conditions after the Oregon Public Utility Commission's staff found it to be lacking in certain ways. The utility will need to resubmit the plan to commission including more details by the end of June.
- Developing the wildfire plan was very different from other utility plans, such as integrated resource plans, which tend to be a more collaborative process, Alison Williams, regulatory policy and strategy advisor for Idaho Power, said. “And that really did not occur here, and is part of the reason why I think we find ourselves with a real gap in perspective about what the plan should have been,” she added.
Oregon experienced a series of wildfires caused by a windstorm that damaged power lines during Labor Day weekend 2020, which burned more than a million acres collectively over the next few days. The following May, the commission approved a temporary framework for utilities to deploy public safety power shutoffs and reporting requirements for the fire season.
Senate Bill 762, passed during the state’s 2021 legislative session, required PacifiCorp, PGE and Idaho Power to file wildfire prevention plans with the Oregon Public Utility Commission by the end of 2021. The plans were reviewed by the commission’s staff as well as an independent evaluator to make sure they met the requirements of the law.
Lori Koho, an administrator in the commission's utility safety, reliability and security division, told commissioners at a meeting last Thursday that the utilities had put a lot of thought and effort into the plans.
“This is the first year for the utilities to submit plans and as we should expect, this is and will continue to be an evolutionary process. It will change as the companies and staff learn more, as the commission sets expectations and stakeholders become more engaged,” she said.
However, Koho also had some recommendations to improve the plan review process going forward, including having the utilities present their plans to the commissioners earlier in the process, as well as allowing them more opportunity to respond to the staff’s concerns about their plans.
PacifiCorp’s wildfire mitigation plan outlines an increased investment of $473 million over the next half decade in fire mitigation measures – including vegetation management and system inspections – and the utility expects that it will make additional investments after 2026 as well.
PGE’s plan, meanwhile, includes measures that are forecasted to require $22 million in operations and maintenance costs and $10 million in capital costs in 2022. Idaho Power, a Boise-based investor-owned utility whose service territory includes a portion of eastern Oregon, also filed a plan with the commission outlining its approach to wildfire prevention, including implementing a risk-based approach to quantifying fire risk.
In memos filed with the commission, the agency's staff recommended that regulators approve both PacifiCorp's and PGE's plans.
However, the commission’s staff found Idaho Power’s plan to be lacking in several ways, Koho told commissioners at the meeting. While the company did describe its wildfire risk modeling, a lot of the focus appeared to be on the state of Idaho as opposed to providing specifics on the Oregon portion of its service territory, she said.
Another major area of concern for the commission’s staff, according to Koho, was that Idaho Power didn’t include a discussion of the costs of implementing its plan, or a cost-benefit analysis. While the utility did provide a list of costs later on, they reflected a combination of efforts in both Idaho and Oregon, she said, as opposed to parsing out the Oregon costs separately.
While the Oregon PUC’s staff appreciates the system-wide focus of the plan, “when we’re looking out for the interest of ratepayers in that chunk of land that sits in Oregon, we need to understand … where those risk areas are, who they truly impact, and then what is going on with the investments in Oregon. The plan didn’t make that clear,” Koho said.
Mitch Colburn, vice president of planning, engineering and construction at Idaho Power, said the utility believes its wildfire plan mitigates risk in a cost-effective and meaningful way for the roughly 20,000 customers it serves in Eastern Oregon. The utility had a fire mitigation plan in place previously and based their latest filing on that, while also incorporating the requirements of the new rules, he said.
Eventually, regulators approved the plans of both PacifiCorp and PGE. They also approved Idaho Power’s plan, but with conditions, including the requirement that the utility resubmit its plan by June 28 with a more thorough analysis of cost and risk mitigation assumptions and more data on specific fire risks in their Oregon footprint.
Some utilities in Oregon have been developing fire mitigation plans for years, but this is the first formal filing to the commission, Oregon PUC Chair Megan Decker said in a statement.
“We recognize the enormous progress Oregon utilities have made and largely approved the plans, but also acknowledge that they need to continue to improve and adapt to meet the needs of communities and keep pace with the changing risks," Decker added.
The 2020 Labor Day wildfires heightened the urgency for utilities in Oregon to mitigate and manage the threat of wildfires as they navigate the rapidly changing climate, Bill Messner, director of wildfire mitigation and resiliency for PGE, said at the meeting.
“PGE agrees that continuous improvements, including lessons learned from prior wildfire seasons, is essential, and we expect our plans to evolve over time,” Messner said.
“The field of wildfire mitigation is very dynamic, and we assume that development and implementation of these plans will be somewhat of an iterative process year over year,” Allen Berreth, vice president of transmission and distribution operations at PacifiCorp, said.