Electrical Utility Provider Allegedly Causes Widespread Fire


Energy Safety ExpertThis case involves an expansive wildfire in Texas that destroyed more than 3,000 structures and resulted in multiple deaths. Investigations have concluded that the majority of the fire was caused by equipment and infrastructure maintained by a major electrical utility provider. As part of the growing set of legal cases surrounding the fire, a team of electrical utility experts familiar with fire risk mitigation, emergency operations, and transmission/distribution was sought to consult on the matter.

Question(s) For Expert Witness

  • 1. How often do you work with electric utilities that have fire prevention/mitigation programs in place?
  • 2. What protocols are in place to prevent electrical utility equipment from sparking catastrophic wildfires?
  • 3. Under what circumstances might a utility preemptively de-energize part of an electrical grid as a means of preventing fires?

Expert Witness Response E-341096

I have 30 years of experience working on and around electrical utilities, including inspecting and managing public and investor-owned utilities. I’m familiar with operations and construction regulations within each of these utilities, and I am well-versed in public utilities general orders for overhead construction and underground installations. Pre-emptive de-energization is usually rare and is typically done if crews must work on major parts of the grid (especially on 220 kV a 500 kV lines). One way to approach this case would be to consider whether the specific transmission lines within the fire areas were in compliance with the NERC regulations at the time, or whether the electric company did not maintain these lines at safe capacity from arcing and starting wildfires. There may be locations in remote wildfire areas where lines are not in compliance with NERC requirements. There are also companies that manage projects for electric companies and hire contractors to repair such violations. I previously worked for one such company as one of their project managers who estimated and hired contractors for these repairs – such as raising transmission arms and cables because they were too low, or because lines were within vegetation. I was one of two quality assurance inspectors who traveled within grid territories looking for such violations.

Expert Witness Response E-349395

I have extensive electric utility experience related to the strategic planning, programs and projects, and deployment of a variety of advanced energy technologies. I directly advised senior executives, including the CEO and COO on these and related topics. The gas and electric grid I was primarily responsible for was significantly influenced in its development and implementation by fire threat issues. An emergency power shut off plan would typically include remotely controllable devices connected to the utility distribution system that would de-energize a portion or all of a distribution circuit in a high fire threat area. Such de-energization could impact customers’ ability to receive evacuation information, or other safety-related messages sent through communications systems relying on utility power. Other infrastructure without backup power sources would also be affected. However, an emergency power shut off plan could provide improved safety in areas affected by high winds where the utility lacks deployed technology that could allow power to continue to flow while improving fire protection. Changing settings on automated devices, such as recloser’s, during weather events can also improve fire safety. I have a strong understanding of CPUC procedure and documentation.

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