Vegetation maintenance the new “CFL” for wildfire management

PG&E has been aggressively cutting down trees as part of its attempt to mitigate wildfire risk, but those efforts may be creating their own risks. Previously, PG&E has been accused of just focusing numeric targets over effective vegetation management. This situation is reminiscent of how the utilities pursued energy efficiency prior to 2013 with a seemingly single-minded focus on compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). And that focus did not end well, including leading to both environmental degradation and unearned incentives for utilities.

CFLs represented about 20% of the residential energy efficiency program spending in 2009. CFLs were easy for the utilities–they just delivered steeply discounted, or even free, CFLs to stores and they got to count each bulb as an “energy savings.” By 2013, the CPUC ordered the utilities to ramp down spending on CFLs as a new cost-effective technology emerged (LEDs) and the problem of disposing of mercury in the ballasts of CFLs became apparent. But more importantly, it turned out that CFLs were just sitting in closets, creating much fewer savings than estimated. (It didn’t help that CFLs turned out to have a much shorter life than initially estimated as well.) Even so, the utilities were able claim incentives from the California Public Utilities Commission. Ultimately, it became apparent that CFLs were largely a mistake in the state’s energy efficiency portfolio.

Vegetation management seems to be the same “easy number counting” solution that the utilities, particularly PG&E, have adopted. The adverse consequences will be significant and it won’t solve the problem in the long. Its one advantage is that it allows the utilities to maintain their status quo position at the center of the utility network.

Other alternatives include system hardening such as undergrounding or building microgrids in rural communities to allow utilities to deenergize the grid while maintaining local power. The latter option appears to be the most cost effective solution, but it is also the most threatening to the current position of the incumbent utility by giving customers more independence.

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