Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

To Prevent Wildfires, California Mandates Power Shutoffs

The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously in favor of the utility's plan and statewide guidelines for power shutoffs despite concerns from disabled people.

California Wildfires
Other states sent firefighters to help battle the California wildfires last fall.
(Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
By J.D. Morris

Regulators approved Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s first annual, state-mandated wildfire prevention plan Thursday as they also signed off on new standards for one of the utility's primary strategies: turning off power lines during dangerously dry and windy weather.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously in favor of the utility's plan and statewide guidelines for power shutoffs despite concerns from disabled people about how more intentional outages, which PG&E is poised to increase dramatically this year, could affect them.

Michael Picker, the commission president, said regulators had to move quickly to adopt plans from PG&E and other investor-owned utilities by this summer. He said that urgency was made clear by state legislators, who required creation of the plans in a 2018 wildfire law, SB901.

Picker said he expects the wildfire plans to improve in future years.

"We know we're just not going to solve this in one year," he said at a meeting in San Francisco.

PG&E's plan spells out a variety of measures to make the company's infrastructure more resilient, strengthen its tree-trimming efforts and expand the power shutoff program it rolled out last year. The company will now consider turning off high-voltage transmission lines -- like the PG&E line that started last year's Camp Fire -- meaning even customers far from areas of high fire danger could lose power.

For PG&E, adhering to the plan is not just a regulatory matter: A federal judge recently made compliance with the document part of the terms of the company's probation arising from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. That means PG&E could face additional court-imposed restrictions if it's found to have violated the plan.

After the vote, PG&E said that it will "continue to keep our regulators, the public and other stakeholders informed as we execute our plan and complete this critical safety work."

"The approval of our 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan marks the progression of enhanced and additional safety precautions PG&E has implemented to address the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires across its service area," spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email.

PG&E had filed to amend its wildfire plan in an effort to change some of its hard deadlines for certain power line inspections to "as soon as feasible," among other changes. Commissioners have not ruled on those proposed changes and will consider them 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.

At the meeting's outset, multiple disabled people spoke critically about utilities intentionally turning off power lines. One of them, North Bay resident Richard Skaff, said utilities such as PG&E have not sufficiently included the disabled community's concerns into plans for power shutoffs, which is referred to technically as de-energization.

Skaff said he has "little faith that PG&E is using de-energization to protect the people it supplies power to," accusing the company of prioritizing the interests of its shareholders.

"I ask you to take this seriously and to include people with disabilities and seniors in this discussion, and come to some conclusion that protects us," he told the commission.

Paulo said PG&E acknowledges that power shutoffs can have adverse impacts and is informing customers about the program through mail, email, advertisements and phone calls. Since the outages can last for "several days," she said the company encourages people with special electric needs to "have emergency plans in place."

PG&E is also meeting with its customers who "provide critical community service" to talk about preparations for power shutoffs, including backup generators, according to Paulo. She stressed that, in the event of intentional outages, PG&E will conduct enhanced outreach to customers enrolled in the utility's assistance program for people who need extra energy for medical reasons.

Some of the same concerns could be addressed by pending legislation from state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who authored the bill that required the utilities' wildfire plans in the first place. Dodd authored another bill this year, SB167, that aims to help people who need access to electricity get backup power when utilities decide to turn off their equipment.

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

(c)2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

Special Projects