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Regulator proposes $22M in fines to California utilities over power shutoffs

The penalties are aimed at “poorly executed” planned power shutoffs meant to curb wildfire risks; the state says utilities did not properly notify customers about when they would lose electricity.

(CN) — The California Public Utilities Commission wants to slap California utility companies with more than $22 million in fines for botching power shutoffs meant to reduce the threat of wildfires in 2020.

The order from the CPUC’s safety and enforcement arm comes just months after the California State Auditor scrutinized the regulator for failing to consistently impose penalties when it found utilities committed safety violations.

Wednesday’s action marks the first time the CPUC has issued an order since issuing its enforcement policy two years ago, the regulator said.

In a statement, the CPUC said the fines will ensure that the utilities comply with its public safety and notification requirements. It recommended a $12 million fine for Pacific Gas & Electric, $10 million for Southern California Edison and $24,000 for San Diego Gas & Electric. PacifiCorp was also found to have violated shutoff notification guidelines, but was not issued a fine.

The utilities have 30 days to either pay the penalty and take corrective action or request a hearing.

In 2020, investor-owned utilities like PG&E and Southern California Edison triggered 26 separate public safety power shutoffs affecting millions of customers.

Those shutoffs are intended as a last resort to prevent fires during dry and windy conditions in high-risk areas.

But the CPUC found the utilities failed to explain the reasoning and decision criteria behind the power shutoffs or give customers enough notice. The utilities also did not accurately report when power was restored in certain areas.

In an email Wednesday, PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paulo said the program continues to be a “necessary tool of last resort,” and that the company worked to improve its customer notification system over the last two years based on customer and state agency feedback.

Paulo said that so far, PG&E has improved the timeliness and accuracy of power shutoff notifications and increased its number of translated notifications from 13 languages to 16. Californians without a PG&E account can still sign up for notifications for any address via automated call or text. The company has also beefed up its reporting of customer complaints about the shutoffs.

“We know that losing power disrupts lives and we are continuing to apply lessons learned, make improvements and refine the PSPS program to reduce impacts on our customers. We are working year-round to make our system safer and more resilient, and improve PSPS for our customers and communities,” Paulo said. “We are reviewing the CPUC’s order and will respond within 30 days as required.”

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