Scant details: Are California utilities doing enough to fireproof their equipment?
By Julie Cart
With much fanfare and no less hand-wringing, state regulators approved plans that for the first time set out how California’s electric utilities intend to prevent their equipment from sparking wildfires.
But the plans provide scant details, and little evidence to support the companies’ claims that indiscriminately clear-cutting millions of trees and replacing hundreds of thousands of wooden utility poles with steel ones will actually reduce the risk of wildfires.
Further, the nearly $3 billion price tag for California’s utilities to perform fire-deterrent work is heavily weighted toward projects that afford them financial advantages and tax benefits: As things stand, the investor-owned utilities may recover 10% or more beyond what they spend on the projects, recouping the money from their customers.
Pole replacement, for example, is a big-ticket item in many of the plans—causing some skeptics to wonder if it’s there for wildfire-resistance or profit-making. When utilities invest in infrastructure, they may gain tax benefits by accelerating depreciation on their equipment.
Overall, the state’s Public Utilities Commission “verified an outline, not a plan,” said its former president, Loretta Lynch. “Nobody is figuring out whether or not these plans contain any measure of mitigation, or whether they are just and reasonable–which are the two pillars of utility regulation.”