California fires and outages bring more PG&E scrutiny

Register now

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that he wants the California Public Utilities Commission to completely reform power shutoff rules and regulations in conjunction with its investigation into the bankrupt Pacific Gas & Electric.

“Utilities must be held accountable and be aggressively penalized for their over-reliance on public safety power shutoffs, and the product of this investigation must be new rules and regulations,” Newsom said at a press conference.

He also reiterated a previous stance that utilities should not charge customers for power during outages.

“It seems obvious, but under the current rules, utilities can do just that,” Newsom said. “It’s unacceptable and must be remedied.”

PG&E has conducted three outages since mid-October that have left millions of people and businesses without power, drawing widespread criticism.

The CPUC gave PG&E wide leeway to schedule power outages in areas at high risk of wildfires during periods of high wind speeds to reduce the risk of live power lines being blown down to potentially spark fires.

The regulatory commission also announced Monday that it plans to launch an investigation into how utilities are using the shutoff program to ensure they are expanding wildfire mitigation efforts ahead of the fire season and limit the use of shutoffs.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered and I applaud CPUC President Marybel Batjer’s work to begin a thorough investigation of PG&E immediately,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Marin County. The county has been largely without power this week. “Forcing millions of Californians to live in the dark is not a solution to PG&E’s neglect," he said. "We must do more to hold PG&E accountable for their actions.”

The electric company’s equipment was blamed for the November 2018 Camp Fire, which nearly wiped out the town of Paradise and killed 86 people.

The utility reported an outage on a long-distance transmission line Wednesday night, at about the time and place the Kincade Fire began.

That fire has now burned more than 75,000 acres and resulted in 200,000 evacuations, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Fire officials have said, however, it will take months to determine the cause.

Levine also plans to introduce legislation when the session resumes in January to authorize the CPUC to appoint a public administrator to oversee the management of PG&E.

The public administrator would be authorized to work with PG&E leadership and make decisions necessary to restore critical infrastructure, ensure that proper safety protocols are followed and increase public confidence in the utility. Once the CPUC is able to determine that PG&E has complied with these financial, infrastructure and safety requirements, full management responsibilities would be returned to PG&E.

California Republicans want to reverse Senate Bill 100, a 2018 law that requires the state to hit 100% renewable electric resources by 2045, claiming it forces companies to focus on complying with the mandate when they should be spending money hardening equipment to prevent fires.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, say the $2.4 billion PG&E is spending on renewables could go toward fire-proofing equipment.

In Congress, U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., announced plans to introduce a federal bill that would revive the alternative minimum tax for utilities that offer executive bonuses, but have failed to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure.

“We cannot accept blackouts as the new normal,” Harder said. “My bill gives PG&E a choice — stop paying your executives bonuses and invest in your infrastructure or take a hit to your bottom line.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Utilities Natural disasters Finance, investment and tax-related legislation California