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U.S. Utilities Under Fire for Failing to Mitigate Wildfire Risk

There have been calls on the U.S. government and the country's utilities to vastly improve its energy infrastructure to tackle the potentially devastating effects of severe weather events. Climate change has exacerbated extreme weather and natural disasters in recent years, which has hit U.S. energy infrastructure hard. Wildfires in California and winter storms in Texas have led to weeks-long power outages. Now, advocacy groups across the U.S. are accusing utilities of neglecting their role in protecting the public by not doing enough to mitigate the risk of wildfires. 

In 2018, in Paradise, California, a wildfire burned for two weeks, displacing tens of thousands of people and leading to the closure of schools and offices up to 150 miles away. It was later found that the utility giant PG&E was largely at fault for not properly assessing the risk of fire on its infrastructure in the region. In 2019, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully starting a fire. It agreed on a $13.5-billion settlement and was forced to file for bankruptcy, which it came out of in June 2020. 

PG&E created a Fire Victim Trust, which has distributed $11.11 billion to fire victims to date. However, many are still waiting for payouts, having lost their homes and communities. PG&E says it has reduced the risk of wildfire from its equipment by 94 percent since 2017, by burying power lines, vegetation management and, where needed, power shut-offs. While PG&E says it has improved its risk mitigation, there are fears that other companies have not. Meanwhile, climate change is exacerbating extreme weather conditions and driving up the potential for wildfires and other disasters. Recent data suggests that in parts of the Western U.S., a 1°C increase in the average annual temperature could result in up to a 600 precent rise in median burned areas in some forest types.

In 2023, authorities in California deemed a major utility guilty for a 2022 wildfire that killed two people. The fire started when a power line from Southern California Edison (SCE) sagged and hit a lower communications line, creating sparks that then ignited vegetation. The fire spread rapidly, burning through 28,000 acres in Riverside Country, south of Los Angeles. Then, in 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii, there was a widespread wildfire that was deemed the most destructive and deadly human-made disaster in Hawaii's history. The fires burned through around 3,000 acres of land and caused approximately $5.5 billion in damage. 

So far, the cause of the wildfire has not been determined. However, Maui County blames the state's utility company, Hawaiian Electric, for the fire. It has filed a lawsuit accusing the company of not properly maintaining its infrastructure. The lawsuit states, Hawaiian Electric "knew that their electrical infrastructure was inadequate, ageing, and/or vulnerable to foreseeable and known weather conditions" and had a "responsibility to maintain and continuously upkeep" that infrastructure. Further, it accuses the utility of keeping its power lines electrified during the forecasted high-fire danger conditions. On 8th August, high winds knocked down power lines, but the company says that the fire associated with this was contained. 

There have been widespread calls for improved mitigation risks for severe weather conditions in recent years, such as shutting off power lines to reduce the risk of wildfire. However, Hawaiian Electric's 2023 wildfire mitigation plan did not include a pre-emptive shut-off plan. The shut-off mitigation plan has become common practice in high-risk areas, such as California, but many states still do not have comprehensive strategies for extreme weather events. 

There are several ways in which utilities can mitigate the risk of wildfire. One of the most obvious is burying power lines so they can't ignite. This is an extremely costly activity, and vast amounts of power lines would require replacement in high-risk areas, which could take years. Companies also need to gain approval to change energy infrastructure on this scale. In 2023, the government approved PG&E's request to bury 1,230 miles of power lines underground between 2023 and 2026 at an anticipated cost of around $3 million per mile. This is expected to lead to a short-term increase in consumer utility bills. 

Companies are also responsible for monitoring the vegetation in the area and cutting back foliage that could pose an ignition risk if it comes into contact with the line. They must also ensure their energy infrastructure is well-maintained to decrease the risk of damage in the event of high winds or heavy rain. Further, utilities in high-risk areas can work with companies using enhanced weather stations to help them make Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) decisions. These stations provide early wildfire detection and share extreme weather risks, letting utilities know when a shut-off is urgently needed. Utilities must consider both short- and long-term wildfire mitigation, by assessing grid vulnerabilities, carrying out comprehensive infrastructure inspections, analysing data, and conducting wildfire spread modelling to establish effective mitigation strategies. 

By Felicity Bradstock for

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More