New Rules Proposal Would Fine California Utilities for Unreasonable Blackouts

A Pacific Gas & Electric worker walks in front of a truck in San Francisco on Aug. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

(CN) – Pacific Gas & Electric and other private utilities that cut the lights to prevent wildfires would have 24 hours to restore power once weather conditions improve under rules introduced Thursday by California regulators.

As part of its ongoing investigation into the series of October 2019 pre-emptive blackouts conducted by PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission’s proposal would also require utilities to give detailed reasoning for the shutoffs, as well as ensure their websites have enough bandwidth to withstand boosted traffic during the events.

If approved, utilities would also have to work with communications providers and conduct monthly meetings with local governments and nonprofits in areas where the pre-emptive blackouts are common.

Due to an an extended pattern of dry and windy conditions, PG&E last fall shut off power during one stretch to more than 700,000 customers, leaving more than two million Californians in the dark, some for longer than a week. At one point, more than half of California’s 58 counties were impacted by the widespread blackouts.

While PG&E claims the public safety power shut-offs likely prevented wildfires from sparking, residents, regulators and lawmakers have been critical of how long it took for power to be restored.

Marybel Batjer, CPUC president, also took aim at PG&E on Thursday and said it had stopped submitting required progress reports. She gave the utility 15 days to submit a detailed plan regarding its planned improvements for future pre-emptive blackouts and other wildfire preparation actions, and said it should be prepared to walk through its process with state emergency officials within 45 days.

“PG&E’s performance during power shut-off events in 2019 was unacceptable and cannot be repeated in 2020,” Batjer said in her ruling. “PG&E must invest the necessary resources to mitigate the need for, and impact of, future events, and it must demonstrate that both its internal and external communications regarding events has received the appropriate attention required.”

In an email, PG&E spokesperson Kristi Jourdan said the company agrees it must improve the process of “public safety power shutoff” (PSPS) events.

“We agree with President Batjer and the CPUC that improving the planning and execution of PSPS events is vitally important for our customers and communities, and we are diligently working every day to get better and to make those improvements before this year’s wildfire season. We will respond to her ruling by the deadline,” Jourdan said.

As the San Francisco-based utility continues its year-long bankruptcy case, pressure from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature continues to mount.

Newsom ripped PG&E during a talk Wednesday in Sacramento, telling the crowd that the company “no longer exists” and that the state is prepared to take over if it doesn’t make whole-scale changes post-bankruptcy.

“If PG&E can’t do it, we’ll do it for them. Period. Full-stop. We’re sick of the excuses and delays,” Newsom said.

Along with the rules proposed Thursday by the CPUC, lawmakers are pushing various bills that would allow customers to re-coup money for things like spoiled food, medication and businesses losses. Earlier this week, the state Senate cleared legislation that would levy hourly fines against utilities that perform blackouts deemed unreasonable by the CPUC.

“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,” state Sen. Scott Wiener said. “It’s a little bit like the Wild West right now, and real people are being harmed.”

Wiener’s proposal, Senate Bill 378 must clear the Assembly before landing on Gov. Newsom’s desk.

If approved, Thursday’s guidelines would additionally require utilities to partner with local governments to create action plans for vulnerable populations and conduct annual exercises with state agencies in areas prone to blackouts before fire season beings.

The guidelines, which don’t mention potential penalties, are open for public comment and an administrative law judge is expected to give his recommendation on the changes to CPUC commissioners in May.

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