Fires

If you’re a PG&E customer, get ready for power blackouts this year to prevent wildfires

“It’s part of the state’s DNA,” Gov. Gavin Newsom talks climate change and wildfire risk

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced April 12, 2019 a panel's findings that California should change its laws on wildfire liabilities, giving PG&E and other utilities more protection against billion-dollar claims.
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Gov. Gavin Newsom announced April 12, 2019 a panel's findings that California should change its laws on wildfire liabilities, giving PG&E and other utilities more protection against billion-dollar claims.

State regulators Thursday approved PG&E Corp.’s plan to impose blackouts this summer across vast stretches of its territory to prevent major wildfires — and told customers they can’t count on reliable electric service as the fire season gets underway.

The Public Utilities Commission approved PG&E’s “wildfire mitigation plan,” in which blackouts could conceivably hit every one of PG&E’s 5.4 million electric households and business customers during times of gusting winds, low humidity and other risky conditions. The plan also calls for PG&E to spend roughly $1.8 billion on ramped-up tree-trimming efforts, fire-resistant power poles and other programs aimed at avoiding a repeat of a major disaster like the Camp Fire.

The PUC approved similar plans submitted by Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and a host of smaller utilities that are regulated by the commission. SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, isn’t subject to PUC oversight.

PUC President Michael Picker said the utilities have to “really focus and isolate areas of risk, and only cut off power in those specific areas.” He also said they must coordinate with local officials so the public can be warned in advance.

But with fire threats increasing, he said Californians should be ready for power outages — sometimes without notice if a fire knocks out communications.

“Given those changes that we’re seeing in weather and changes that we’re seeing in fire fuels, nobody who lives in wildfire hazard zones should count on a warning or should count on having reliable electricity,” Picker said. “This is a new set of conditions that puts large parts of the state at great risk, because the reliability cannot be guaranteed.”

A former chief of staff to late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, Picker also announced that he plans to retire this summer. The PUC presidency, which he’s held since latde 2014, has put him at the forefront of California’s struggles to deal with wildfires and the damage they cause.

Most utilities, including PG&E, already had systems in place to reduce wildfire risk. With the passage of SB 901 last fall, a law that mostly deals with the costs of big fires, the Legislature ordered them to submit more detailed plans to the PUC.

The planned power shutoffs will likely prove the most controversial element of the wildfire plans.

Last year, only 570,000 of PG&E’s households and business customers were subject to potential blackouts. This year the universe of potential blackout customers has grown tenfold, to include the utility’s entire service territory.

When PG&E blacked out 60,000 homes for several days last October, mainly in the wine country and parts of the Sacramento Valley, the decision was met with grumbling from business owners and local public safety officials. PUC commissioners said they’re sensitive to concerns about problems that can be caused by mass blackouts.

Imposing a blackout “should be taken as a last resort to prevent devastating wildfires,” said PUC Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen. “It presents its own safety and health risks.” He said utilities shouldn’t impose blackouts “to avoid wildfire liability.”

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January after saying it expects to face $30 billion in liability claims from November’s Camp Fire and the 2017 wine-country fire. Cal Fire announced two weeks ago that the Camp Fire was triggered by problems on a faulty high-voltage PG&E transmission tower.

The Camp Fire destroyed most of Paradise’s housing stock and killed 85 people, the most in California history.

“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,” PG&E said in a prepared statement.

Although PG&E’s overall plan for reducing fire risk was approved, the commission still hasn’t signed off on the $1.8 billion the utility is spending on tree removal, increased inspections and other programs. Picker said PG&E will have to justify those expenses during future proceedings in order to pass the costs along to ratepayers.

The decision comes as state officials continue to struggle with the question of wildfire liabilities.

The state’s new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery urged lawmakers Wednesday to change the legal doctrine that exposes utilities to liabilities if their equipment started a fire, regardless of whether the utility acted negligently. Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders stopped short of endorsing the recommendation but pledged to “stabilize the energy market and our utilities by addressing the liability faced by utilities after catastrophic wildfires.”

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