Panel focuses on reliability following Calif. blackouts

Source: By Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 16, 2019

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony this week about the impacts of wildfires on the electric grid.

The Thursday hearing follows a noteworthy wildfire season in which California and its Pacific Gas and Electric Co. utility saw preventive blackouts during high-wind days in an effort to stop the spread of wildfire from old transmission equipment in fire-prone areas.

Those preventive measures taken by PG&E resulted in the loss of power for as many as 2.5 million people throughout Northern and central California on multiple occasions during the fall.

The actions have prompted calls for the state to take over the beleaguered utility or force other actions to prompt a safer, more reliable grid.

The utility has countered that the blackouts are needed to ensure safety during high-wind days, when electric equipment can be knocked out and cause fires to spark.

Authorities have held the utility responsible in previous years for fires from its equipment. PG&E announced a $13.5 billion settlement earlier this month to resolve major claims.

The claims were related to the deadly Northern California wildfires of 2017-18 that were blamed on outdated equipment and negligence.

The idea of transmission equipment causing wildfires has been on the minds of lawmakers in Congress for a while.

In 2018, they attached language to a bipartisan budget agreement to encourage more active vegetation management for downed trees near power lines.

They also added a broader “fire borrowing” fix to help ensure funding for preventive fire maintenance.

Republicans and President Trump have argued for more active, streamlined forest management to help dilute the intensity of wildfires.

Democrats and environmentalists have balked at such proposals for their potential harm to ecosystems.