Bill to Thwart Abuse of Pre-Emptive Blackouts Clears California Senate

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California lawmakers on Monday approved a bill that would allow business and residents to recover money from utilities that purposely shut off power during wildfire season.

The measure by state Sen. Scott Wiener would additionally allow regulators to level hourly fees on private utilities if they deem a pre-emptive shutoff – like the ones that plagued millions of Californians in fall 2019 – was unreasonable or preventable. The San Francisco Democrat says his goal is to give residents the chance to be compensated for spoiled food and medicines, and ensure utilities are only using the tactic as a last resort.

“Right now the fundamental problem is that the utilities have no incentive, no obligation to take into account the harm people are caused by the blackouts,” Wiener said. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West right now, and real people are being harmed.”

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

This past fall, the state’s largest utilities shut down power on several occasions to reduce the chance of high winds sparking and spreading wildfires. The unpopular decisions touched millions of Californians across the majority of the state’s counties, with local officials reporting outages lasting from two days up to 11 days.

Critics accused Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, of botching the blackouts. PG&E investors sued and the utilities commission opened up a formal investigation.

Wiener, a vocal PG&E critic, introduced Senate Bill 378 in wake of the blackouts. The initial version proposed a hefty penalty of $500,000 for every hour of a blackout by major utilities, but he agreed to cut the fine in half in order to clear a Senate committee earlier this month. The amended version passed the Senate on Monday, 25-2, and now moves to the Assembly.

Various Republican senators abstained from voting on the bill, noting that they expect more changes to be made in Assembly and would rather wait for the final product later this summer.

Both sides of the aisle criticized aspects of the bill on Monday, including Democratic Sen. Susan Rubio. While she voted in favor of the bill, Rubio said she was concerned that the hefty fines could make utilities wary of cutting off power even in appropriate scenarios.

“These penalties may cause some of these utility companies to hesitate, to blink,” Rubio said. “When it comes to the lives of individuals, we don’t want them to take that shortcut.”

Utilities along with the California Chamber of Commerce and Coalition of California Utility Employees oppose the bill, while supporters include Alameda County and Bay Area cities like San Jose, Oakland and Pleasanton.

The measure would also require utilities to pay potential fines with funds generated from shareholders – not ratepayers – and force them to redistribute any profits made during planned blackouts to ratepayers. Wiener says he is also planning to introduce legislation that would turn San Francisco-based PG&E into a public utility.

“PG&E has abused its power for far too long, and instead of fixing its faulty equipment – which led to the deadliest wildfire in California history – it leveled massive power shutoffs all over the state to avoid liability. While I understand that blackouts are a necessary tool in wildfire prevention, they should be implemented with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” Wiener said.

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