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Edison Has A $3.8 Billion Plan To Cut Fire Risk

Downed power lines and poles, casualties of the Woolsey Fire, on Busch Drive in Malibu, California on November 13, 2018. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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Southern California Edison has submitted a $3.8 billion plan to state utility regulators, describing all the ways it plans to reduce the chance that its power lines and other equipment could spark wildland fires.

The company, like its Northern California counterpart, PG&E, has faced billions of dollars in liability for damages in past fires. The California Public Utilities Commission now requires big utilities to submit their plans for reducing wildland fire risk.

The Edison plan calls for continued tree-cutting and vegetation clearance. The company wants to remove trees that are close enough to fall on power lines.

But tree parts, like palm fronds, that can blow into live power lines from far away can also cause fires. So in some areas Edison is replacing power lines with versions that have a covered line to conduct electricity. The company replaced some 1,200 miles of regular power lines with covered conductors over the past two years, and the new plan calls for it to replace another 2,600 miles of lines.

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Edison is also upgrading utility poles in the most fire-vulnerable areas. Some wooden poles that carry heavy transformers are being replaced with poles made of composite material that doesn’t burn as easily. Other wooden poles that carry just power lines, which are a lighter load, are being wrapped in a fire retardant mesh. When temperatures near the mesh get hot, say 300 degrees, a fire retardant material coating the mesh melts and oozes out to protect the pole.

It costs about $1,000 to wrap a utility pole in mesh, versus about $17,000 to replace a wood pole.

The company will continue to turn off the power to fire-threatened areas during the hot, windy and dry conditions known as red flag days. The company plan includes a strategy to make the Public Safety Power Shutoffs briefer and less onerous for residents. Some very large power circuits can be divided into smaller segments so that only the portions of the territory where fire is most risky are shut off, said Phil Herrington of Edison.

The company also promises to communicate better about the shutoffs with people most in need of power during shutdowns, like those who use medical devices or refrigerate medicines.