California Regulators Launch Investigation into PG&E’s Fire-Prevention Blackouts

California regulators this week launched an investigation into
Pacific Gas & Electric’s massive fire-prevention power
outages last month, both to assess whether the bankrupt utility
should face millions of dollars in fines for its communications
breakdowns during the events, and to prevent future events from
being as disruptive. 

On Tuesday, the CPUC
ordered
PG&E to “show cause” as to why it shouldn’t
face fines for its failures during its public safety power shutoff
(PSPS) event of Oct. 9-12. The outage affecting 34 counties and an
estimated 2 million people was marked by a
breakdown in communications
, including the crash of the
PG&E web site serving as the sole source of outage information
for the public and city, county and state agencies alike.

PG&E also failed to coordinate with local governments and
tribal communities before and during the event, and failed to plan
for how its outages could require backup power for key
infrastructure like highway tunnels or railroad crossings. All in
all, the CPUC accused PG&E of an outage that was
“ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated (both internally
and externally) and ineffectively communicated.” 

PG&E could face fines of up to $100,000 for each violation,
which include its failure to contact about 23,000 customers,
including 500 medically vulnerable customers, that they were about
to lose power. A prehearing conference to set the schedule for the
order will be held on Dec. 4.

This week’s actions by the California Public Utilities
Commission come amid a public outcry against PG&E’s
outages last month
, which this time left even more northern
California residents without power, some of them for days at a
time. PG&E said the outages were needed to prevent live
powerlines from sparking another deadly wildfire like November
2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and caused an estimated
$14 billion in damages — damages which forced PG&E
into bankruptcy
 early this year. 

The CPUC ordered PG&E and the state’s other investor-owned
utilities to start shutting off power last year to prevent a repeat
of the deadly 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. But PG&E’s outages
have been far more drastic, widespread and long-lasting than those
conducted by San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California
Edison. 

In an emergency hearing after the outage, PG&E
executives promised
 CPUC commissioners that they would fix the
breakdowns and improve its coordination with state and local
agencies. But many of the counties and cities worst-hit by the
outages have told the CPUC that they doubt PG&E’s promises,
given its failure to coordinate with them in the past.

The public outrage over PG&E’s handling of its outages,
combined with concern over its post-bankruptcy financial viability,
have led a growing number of California leaders to call
for a
public takeover
 of PG&E’s assets. Gov. Gavin Newsom has
floated the idea as an option, while publicly courting investment
from Warren Buffett. 

While PG&E remains the primary concern, California
regulators are also taking a broader look at how the state’s
other utilities, as well as critical infrastructure like cellphone
service, have handled fire-prevention power outages. On Wednesday,
the CPUC launched an investigation into all
of California’s investor-owned utilities, to ensure that
fire-prevention power shutoffs “are only made when absolutely
necessary and are based on actual and substantiated
conditions.” 

San Diego Gas & Electric, the acknowledged leader in
fire-prevention shutoffs, has spent more than $1.5 billion over a
decade on weather forecasting, tree clearing, grid hardening,
circuit sectionalization, and other work that’s allowed it to
tightly target its outages to single communities in fire-prone
areas, for example. While PG&E’s investments in similar
efforts allowed it to reduce the impact of last month’s outages
somewhat, CEO Bill Johnson has also said it will be about 10 years
before the utility will be able to take PSPS events off the table
as a solution of last resort.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
California Regulators Launch Investigation into PG&E’s Fire-Prevention Blackouts