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One of PG&E’s Largest Lessons Learned

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Nevelyn Black's picture
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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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The Fourth of July holiday weekend saw more than a few fires across the country.  "On one side of the street, we had families evacuating their homes, children crying, grabbing pets, thinking maybe they weren't ever going to see their house again. And on the other side of the street, we have people that are shooting off illegal fireworks into the air," Denver South Metro Fire Rescue public information officer Eric Hurst said who responded to at least 17 fireworks-related fires.

"You look at the Marshall Fire and the damage that it did and then South Metro's (brush fire) yesterday, and things are ready to burn right now, and fireworks can certainly cause that," said Denver, Colorado South Metro Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Steve Kornegay said.

One day before New Year's Eve,  the Marshall Fire in Boulder, Colorado destroyed 1,000 homes and investigators have yet to identify the cause of the fire. Officials have been looking into powerlines, human activity and even a long-smoldering coal mine as possible causes of the fire.

Last week, Xcel Energy asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit blaming the company for the December blaze in Boulder.  The suit cites video that shows sparks flying from a malfunctioning power line in the neighborhood.  However, Xcel states that the video does not show sparks igniting a fire, but rather shows that the Marshall Fire was already ablaze.  The utility also states they are in full compliance with all PUC standards for construction, operation, and maintenance.  However, the utility does want to help out homeowners who are rebuilding in the area.  Xcel is offering rebates to families that spend the time and money to rebuild more efficient homes.  “The rebate will cover the entire certification costs and typically any added design and energy modeling expenses for an average budgeted home. The extra costs in upgrading the actual building is very much in the hands of the team that designs and builds it,” said Andrew Michler, a Passive House designer who is working with a number of Marshall Fire victims to rebuild to Passive House standards. 

Xcel is burying some lines to prevent wildfires but employing vegetation management, coating lines and public safety shutoffs are a lot less expensive than burying all transmission lines.   Other utility companies, facing the same challenge, strongly believe the one-time expense is well worth the costs in the long run.  “The magic of undergrounding is that it’s a one-time investment for permanent risk reduction,” said Jamie Martin, vice president of Undergrounding for PG&E in California.  “One of our greatest lessons learned is that underground work can be done economically for customers, and I think that’s a big unlock, certainly for us internally at PG&E,” Martin said.   The utility’s current target costs are $3.75 million a mile for undergrounding lines but over time it’s believed that they’ll gain experience, become more efficient, and reduce costs to $2 million a mile.

“Undergrounding a line reduces the risk of ignition. It nearly eliminates it.”

 

 

 

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