- Washington's investor-owned utilities – Avista, Pacific Power and Puget Sound Energy (PSE) – plan to invest millions of dollars over the next few years in prepping their systems for more extreme wildfire seasons, according to plans filed with the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) earlier this month.
- At the same time, utility executives are also keeping a close eye on trends related to the Great Resignation, and the impacts of people switching jobs or leaving the workforce on their wildfire response efforts, they told regulators at a commission meeting Wednesday.
- Pacific Power has been seeing the impacts of these trends, according to Allen Berreth, the utility’s vice president of T&D operations. While the amount and impacts of turnover varies from state to state, “it’s there and it’s definitely on our mind of how to resolve that,” he said.
Utilities across the Western U.S. have had to come to terms with more extreme and frequent wildfires in recent years. While California has seen the bulk of the impacts, wildfire risks in states like Washington cannot be ignored, Pacific Power noted in its wildfire plan, filed with the commission this April.
“While wildfires involving electric utility infrastructure account for only a small fraction of wildfires in our state, we nonetheless believe it is critical that our utilities are taking steps to prepare for wildfires” and minimize the risk to their infrastructure as well as communities they serve, UTC Chair David Danner said at the meeting.
The issue is of particular interest given persistent drought and climate impacts in the Northwest, UTC Commissioner Ann Rendahl agreed, “and so our continued review and discussion about how our three regulated utilities are preparing for wildfires is really critical.”
More than 87,000 of Avista’s 396,000 electric customers live in high-fire risk areas, along with roughly 40% of the utility’s distribution lines and a fifth of its transmission lines, it reported in its plan. Avista estimates it will need to make capital investments of $282 million over a ten-year period, along with operating expenses estimated to be nearly $69 million, on wildfire resiliency measures. The bulk of these investments will go into its grid hardening and vegetation management efforts.
Pacific Power, meanwhile, outlined increased investments of roughly $17.2 million – the bulk of which is capital expenditure – between 2019 and 2023, going to inspecting and hardening their systems, and vegetation management. The utility also has a plan for public safety power shutoffs – proactively de-energizing power lines during high fire-risk conditions – which Berreth described as a “measure of last resort to reduce the risk of wildfires.”
“We understand the impact that PSPS events can have on customers and communities. Therefore, the core of our decision-making and the overall PSPS program, is balancing the risks of the conditions surrounding a potential event with the risk created by the de-energization itself,” he said.
PSE is planning to deploy roughly 170 wildfire-related projects and over $110 million in anticipated system investments through 2025. The utility is also thinking through its PSPS strategy, Catherine Koch, its director of planning, said at the meeting.
At the same time, utilities are keeping a close eye on the impacts of COVID-19 and the Great Resignation on their wildfire response efforts. While Pacific Power is seeing employees leave their workforce, it does not at this point consider this to be a crisis, Berreth said. Pacific Power is a division of PacifiCorp, which operates across six states, and so it also has a large resource pool to move around as required during the fire season.
PSE is also watching this trend very closely, Ryan Murphy, the utility’s director of electric operations, said.
“Voluntary separations have been up since the pandemic – in fact, we’re seeing in that 12% to 15% range with our first responders, which is up pretty significantly,” he said. The utility has also seen quite a few early retirements and state relocations through the pandemic.
Last December, PSE made wage adjustments – including for line workers – based on market indicators in the Pacific Northwest, and has seen a good response in terms of its ability to attract workers, he said.
“Nevertheless, it’s a big impact and so the question is an important one,” Murphy added.
Avista has seen some movement of staff during the pandemic, especially in terms of office staff, as well as to a lesser extent, workers who have left for California where they can work more hours and make more money, according to David James, the utility’s wildfire resiliency plan manager.
However, the utility has also been ramping up the pace of its wildfire mitigation work and has more than doubled its vegetation management crews, as well as bringing on board more contracted workers in general.
“All of those crews become sort of a pool that we can use during events, so I think we’re in better shape than we were prior to having a fire plan,” he added.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources commended the UTC and investor-owned utilities for taking "the bold steps to develop plans that attempt to reduce the risk of wildfire starts and their impacts in Washington," spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward said in an emailed statement, adding that the department is committed to working with the UTC and utilities as they implement the plans.