California officials are predicting another difficult wildfire season in California, but San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) CEO Caroline Winn said the combination utility expects that planned outages will unfold smoothly this year. 

SDG&E Service Area & Historical Wildfires

Winn spoke on Monday during a virtual hearing of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which is hearing how the major investor-owned utilities (IOU) have prepared for public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) this fire season.

CPUC President Marybel Batjer reiterated that PSPS events are “measures of last resort, and if and when they are used, it is absolutely imperative that these events are executed safely and thoughtfully.” Batjer said this is particularly critical this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid-19 will complicate and exacerbate PSPS planning and execution,” Batjer said. With more people working and living at home now, loss of power is ever-more harmful to utility customers, she added.

When a PSPS is called, state utilities are required to manage the scope and duration of the outage. Mistakes made last year cannot be repeated, she said. “This week’s hearings are focused on utilities’ readiness.” Some utilities are “farther along the path of progress and maturity than others.”

With 54% of SDG&E’s service territory designated as high wildfire threat areas, Winn said the utility’s fire mitigation plan calls for more hardening of the grid and building more partnerships with community-based organizations and state and local officials. Winn chairs a community safety advisory board.

SDG&E has hardened nearly 99% of its transmission system in the highest fire-risk areas, and that allows the Sempra Energy utility to keep substations energized in high-risk areas, Winn said. “We have been able to limit the PSPSs to only the areas of highest risk.”

Utility executives outlined how fire mitigation PSPSs have to adjust for the coronavirus, such as ensuring that all test centers have backup power during planned outages, and community resource centers are changed to drive-by operations. SDG&E has four additional microgrids for low-income and other vulnerable communities.

“It is even more critical that we expand our backup generation program because of the pandemic,” said Winn. Half of the generators this year are portable solar-battery packs, which are being distributed to all medical baseline customers in high fire risk areas. “These generators will become more critical as we see the pandemic continue.”