Regulators approve PG&E wildfire plan and statewide power shutoff rules 

(Image: a lineman works to repair a power line in fire-ravaged Paradise, California) (Story: Regulators approve PG&E wildfire plan, statewide power shutoff rules)
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Thursday, May 30, 2019 Regulators endorsed the first annual, state-mandated wildfire prevention plan for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. as they also signed off on new standards for one of the main methods of the utility, which is switching off energy lines during dangerously dry and windy weather.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously in favor of the utility’s plan and energy shutdown guidelines despite worries from disabled individuals about how they might be affected during deliberate outages that PG&E is set to boost dramatically this year.

Commission chairman Michael Picker said regulators had to move rapidly this summer to embrace plans from PG&E and other investor-owned services. He said state legislators made the urgency clear, requiring the plans to be created in a 2018 wildfire law, SB901.

Picker said he wants to enhance the wildfire plans in the years to come. “We know we won’t fix this in a year,” he said at a San Francisco conference.

PG&E’s plan outlines a range of measures to make the infrastructure of the company more resilient, reinforce its tree-trimming initiatives and expand the energy shutdown program it launched last year. The company will now consider turning off high-voltage transmission lines like the PG&E line that caused the Camp Fire in 2018, meaning that even clients away from high-fire hazard fields might lose energy.

For PG&E, adhering to the plan is not just a regulatory issue and a federal judge recently made compliance to the document portion of the terms of probation of the company resulting from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. Meaning PG&E may face extra constraints imposed by the court if the plan is discovered to have been breached.

After the vote, PG&E said it would continue to keep our regulators, the public and other stakeholders informed as we carry out our strategy and finish this critical job on wildfire prevention.”

“The approval of our 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan marks the progress of PG&E’s improved and extra security measures to tackle the increasing danger of extreme weather and wildfires throughout its service region,” spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email.

PG&E has filed to amend its wildfire strategy in an attempt to alter some of its tough deadlines for certain energy line inspections, among other modifications. Commissioners have not ruled and will consider these suggested modifications later.

The power shutoff standards approved by the commission require PG&E and other utilities to use the strategy only as a “measure of last resort,” develop notification protocols to reach all customers and integrate their warning systems with agencies in the state responsible for warning the public about emergencies, among other requirements.

Commissioner Liane Randolph said shutoffs are one way to stop extreme wildfires during extreme weather.

“When those conditions exist, this is one of the tools we have in our toolbox to save lives and prevent destruction,” she said.

Multiple disabled individuals spoke critically at the beginning of the meeting about utilities deliberately turning off energy lines. One of them, Richard Skaff, resident of North Bay, said utilities like PG&E have not adequately incorporated the issues of the disabled community into energy shutdown plans, which is technically referred to as de-energization.

Skaff said he has “little belief that de-energization is being used by PG&E to safeguard the individuals to whom it supplies power,” accusing the company of prioritizing its shareholder interests.

“I ask you to take this seriously and include disabled individuals and elderly in this debate and come to a conclusion that protects us,” he informed the committee.

Paulo said PG&E recognizes that energy shutdowns can have negative effects and informs clients through mail, email, ads, and phone calls about the program. Because the outages can last for “several days,” she said the firm is encouraging people with special electrical needs to “have emergency plans in place.”

According to Paulo, PG&E is also meeting its clients and providing critical community service to discuss energy shutdown preparations, including backup generators. She stressed that PG&E will perform improved outreach to clients registered in the aid program of the utility for individuals who need additional power for medical purposes in the case of deliberate outages.

Some of the same concerns could be addressed by pending legislation from State Sen. Bill Dodd, who first authored the bill requiring the wildfire plans of the utilities. This year, Dodd wrote another bill, SB167, which seeks to assist individuals who need access to electricity get backup energy when utilities decide to switch off their devices.

The bill passed the state Senate and was referred to the Assembly’s utilities and energy committee.