Electric utilities are facing new challenges in the United States. Here in the West, we are beginning to experience the direct impacts of climate change, through extreme weather, droughts, reduced snowpack, and wildfires. A hotter, drier climate intensifies wildfire risk and severity. Electric utility infrastructure—like high-voltage transmission lines—have always posed fire risks, but those risks are now much greater than when those facilities were initially constructed. This has led utilities to commence preventative emergency disconnection of electricity service as a tool to mitigate the risk of utility infrastructure sparking deadly and devastating wildfires. These interruptions in service, while reducing wildfire risk, also pose significant hardship on broad populations of utility customers who depend on reliable access to electricity.
In reaction to these intensifying operational risks from electric utility infrastructure and unpopular impacts on customers, two regulatory trends are emerging. First, utilities are seeking to be more proactive in maintaining infrastructure and proposing new wildfire mitigation programs. Second, regulators and utility customers are turning to distributed energy resources as a way to improve the reliability and resilience of electricity service. This article explores both trends in the context of Colorado, a wildfire-prone state with vertically integrated regulated utilities.