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California audit calls for tougher oversight of utility fire safety

The audit recommends state laws be changed to require utility companies prioritize wildfire-prevention work in areas where fire danger is greatest.

(CN) — California needs tougher laws and enforcement to ensure utility companies bury power lines and trim trees in areas most frequently subject to fire-prevention power shutoffs, a California state audit report found Thursday.

The audit report comes as fire season, which appears to start earlier each year due to climate change, approaches in California. The state has seen devastating utility-caused wildfires in recent years, including the Dixie Fire that burned more than 963,000 acres last year, making it the second largest in state history. Investigators blamed the fire on power lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.

Fires sparked by PG&E power lines have burned more than 1.5 million acres and killed more than 100 people in California since 2015.

The audit report released Thursday scrutinized efforts by two state agencies — the California Public Utilities Commission and the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety — that approve investor-owned utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans and evaluate the implementation of those plans.

The report identified a flawed process for approving wildfire safety plans, haphazard reviews of utilities’ fire-prevention work, inconsistent enforcement of safety violations and a failure to make sure utilities prioritize hardening power lines in the highest-risk areas.

It also concluded the Energy Safety Office awarded safety certifications to utilities, despite finding serious deficiencies in their wildfire mitigation plans.

“The [Energy Safety] office approved plans despite some utilities’ failure to demonstrate that they are appropriately prioritizing their mitigation activities, and subsequent reviews have found that some utilities failed to focus their efforts in high fire-threat areas,” acting California State Auditor Michael Tilden wrote in a letter about the report.

From 2013 to 2021, investor-owned utilities like PG&E and Southern California Edison triggered 67 public safety power shutoffs affecting more than 3.6 million customers. Those shutoffs are intended as a last resort to prevent fires during dry and windy conditions in high-risk areas.

According to the audit, the existence of 40,000 miles of bare power lines in high fire-danger zones has contributed to the need for more frequent power blackouts. To lessen the frequency of outages, the audit suggests utilities be required to cover and bury lines in areas routinely affected by power shutoffs.

The report also found the CPUC did not consistently impose penalties when it found utilities committed safety violations.

Additionally, the audit faulted the Energy Safety Office for not requiring utilities to clearly identify in their safety plans where wildfire mitigation activities will occur.

“As a result of this weakness, the Energy Safety Office does not assess whether utilities plan to conduct these mitigation activities in areas of highest risk for wildfire as a condition for approving their mitigation plans,” the audit sates.

The audit recommends changing state law to require utilities explain in mitigation plans what improvements are needed to prevent future power shutoffs in areas routinely affected by them. It also suggests requiring the Energy Safety Office assess utilities’ compliance with previous mitigation plans before approving new ones as part of an annual safety certification process.

The report further calls for the CPUC to develop a risk-based audit plan for ensuring utilities are prioritizing fire-prevention work, like tree trimming and burying power lines, in the highest risk areas. Additionally, it outlines the need for the commission to adopt a schedule of penalties for safety violations and to impose penalties when violations occur.

Responding to the report, CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the commission appreciates the state auditor’s work and plans to follow up on the report’s recommendations.

“The CPUC is committed to the continuous improvement of its operations,” Prosper said. “Accordingly, the CPUC will establish a plan and timelines toward implementing the recommendations identified in the California State Auditor’s (CSA) report.

In a formal response to the audit, the Energy Safety Office said it disagreed with many of the report’s recommendations, including that it consider a utility’s implementation of its prior fire safety plan when approving a new one.

“Using the safety certification as a backward-looking, punitive enforcement action could undermine its value as a stabilizing incentive to invest in safety and, as the Report states, ‘support credit worthiness,’ which enables utilities to raise capital at a lower cost to make those investments,” the office said in response to the audit.

The Energy Safety Office also disagreed with findings that its prior evaluations of fire safety plans failed to ensure utilities focused fire-mitigation work in the highest-risk areas, as a federal court-appointed monitor found in an October 2020 report.

“Energy Safety has focused extensively on driving the utilities to develop their risk modeling capabilities so that the utilities can accurately prioritize their mitigation activities,” the office said.

Formerly known as the Wildfire Safety Division established as a branch of the CPUC in 2020, the Energy Safety Office broke away last year to become a separate department under the auspices of the California Natural Resources Agency.

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