The electricity factor

Hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines and other electrical equipment are strung across California, drawing little attention—until authorities name utility equipment as the cause of a wildfire. One in 10 California wildfires is related to energy equipment, according to the state’s chief utility regulator.

Lawmakers have ordered that utility companies put safety measures in place, hoping to ensure that their equipment won’t spark future fires. Among the firms’ strategies: more aggressively clearing brush and trees around transmission lines; swapping wooden power poles for metal ones; maintaining a network of remote cameras to keep watch on wind, smoke and other dangers; and preemptively shutting down the power when conditions are windy and dry.

None of these or other fire-mitigation efforts will come cheaply. Early estimates place the cumulative economic cost of Pacific Gas & Electric’s huge October blackout in Northern California at up to $2.5 billion. When a judge proposed sweeping new safety measures for PG&E, the company said the work could cost an eye-popping $150 billion. And consumers can be expected to foot much of the fire-mitigation bill as utility companies pass costs along to them.