Calif. regulators question PG&E officials about shutoff

Commissioners with the California Public Utilities Commission on Oct. 18 said that Pacific Gas & Electric fell short in several areas related to a recent massive power shutoff intended to prevent wildfires caused by high winds taking down power lines and asked officials with the utility to explain how they intended to fix the problems going forward.

William Johnson, President and CEO of PG&E Corporation, which is the parent company of PG&E, and several other utility officials appeared at an emergency meeting convened by the CPUC related to the shutoff.

PG&E said that every customer impacted by the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) implemented this month had their power restored as of the afternoon of Oct. 12. PG&E initiated the PSPS due to dry, windy weather and elevated fire risk across its service area. Wind gusts in excess of 70 miles per hour were recorded Wednesday evening and into Thursday.

CPUC President Marybel Batjer on Oct. 14 ordered PG&E to take a multitude of immediate corrective actions “after it encountered significant problems with communication, coordination, and management” during the PSPS.

In a letter to Johnson on Oct. 14, Batjer and CPUC officials outlined seven major areas where immediate corrective actions are required.

Facing billions of dollars in wildfire-related liabilities, PG&E Corporation and its primary operating subsidiary, PG&E, on Jan. 29 filed voluntary petitions under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California.

CPUC emergency hearing

“At this time, Northern California continues to have a fire risk and additional PSPS events may occur again at any time if weather conditions change,” Batjer said at the Oct. 18 CPUC emergency meeting.

“Without an effective best event evaluation and swift changes in both PG&E’s policy and the company’s ability to implement them, the events of the week of October 7 could be repeated,” she said. “The threat of a poorly executed widescale PSPS event compromise the delivery of electricity to the public including homes, hospitals and public facilities,” she said.

“What we saw play out last week by PG&E cannot be repeated,” Batjer said.

She said that her goals for the emergency meeting included making sure that any future power shutoff event “is never like the one of last week.”

Batjer noted that in the past year, the CPUC adopted a wildfire mitigation for PG&E and protocols for power shutoffs and continues to examine current practices from each power shutoff event. “The utility’s plans for these events, however, are only effective when they are implemented in a reasonable and competent manner. This did not happen last week.”

She said that PG&E was not fully prepared to manage such a large-scale power shutoff.

“Throughout the event, PG&E had multiple issues with communications, coordination and event and resource management,” Batjer said.

“Among various problems identified we witnessed PG&E not adequately prepared or scale its business operations for the increase in customers contacting the utility during the power shutoff events including the crashing of its website and its inability to answer the calls of customers seeking assistance and critical information,” the CPUC chair said.

“We have also heard from local and tribal governments on the lack of coordination until the power shutoffs commenced, the lack of critical information flow and in some instances, total breakdowns in communication,” she said.

Johnson acknowledges ‘significant shortcomings in execution’

“We’re here to discuss the difficult decision that PG&E made last week to turn off power for safety across hundreds of communities and 35 counties,” Johnson said at the hearing. “A decision I believe achieved its central purpose, but one that also suffered from significant shortcomings in execution.”

He said that “any time when we have to live without power is difficult, but in this case the hardship was widespread and was made worse by shortcomings in our communications, our online maps and other areas. When people needed information, our website and call centers were underequipped to meet that challenge. When people could access our site, the maps showing potentially impacted areas were not dependable.”

Johnson said that “I acknowledge these critical errors. They’re not acceptable and they cannot happen again.”

Johnson also described some of the areas that the utility is focused on moving forward.

In the area of communication, he said that “should the prospect of another safety shutoff arise, we commit to communicating with our customers and communities with as much as notice as possible, with as much clarity as possible and as frequently as possible. We did not deliver on that commitment last week. Our website crashed several times, our maps were inconsistent – perhaps incorrect. Our call centers were overloaded. So we are reinforcing our website and call centers to handle a much higher volume in these events and we’re working to improve the quality and accessibility of our outage maps.”   

In addition, the utility will also continue to improve coordination with its government agency partners, as well as work to narrow the scope of safety shutoffs.

CPUC Commissioner Liane Randolph asked Johnson when he expects the utility can get to the point where it doesn’t need to implement widespread shutoffs. “Seeing a path to getting to the point where these widespread events are not necessary is, I think, where we all need to be. So how are we going to get there?” Randolph asked Johnson.

Johnson said that “some of the answers are, in the shorter term, more sectionalizing equipment, particularly on sub-transmission so that you can take out smaller sections of line. I think there’s a definite need to move towards some form of microgrid sectionalization.” He also mentioned the use of different materials like covered wire and increased vegetation management.

“I think there’s probably a ten-year timeline to get to a point where” the threat of a widespread shutoff is “really ratcheted down significantly. I think it will be better every year. I think everybody gets better at it every year and with every event and we learn a lot from each other, but the risk is significant.”

Article says California governor supports PG&E bids

Meanwhile, according to an article posted on SF Gate’s website on Oct. 16, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a conference in San Francisco last week “that California residents would benefit from PG&E breaking into smaller pieces.”

“I back more competition,” Newsom was quoted as saying in the article. “I am very specifically encouraging others to come into this space and to make some bids. We want to create a competitive space — and all of it with an eye on different approaches.”

The City of San Francisco recently made a $2.5 billion offer to purchase substantially all of Pacific Gas & Electric’s distribution and transmission assets needed to provide retail electric service to all electricity customers in the city.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera outlined the proposal in a Sept. 6 letter that was sent to Johnson and Andrew Vesey, CEO and President of PG&E.

PG&E earlier this month rejected the offer from the City of San Francisco. In an Oct. 7 letter to Breed and Herrera, Johnson wrote, “Although we appreciate the effort San Francisco undertook to prepare its offer, we must decline to accept it.”

“We aren’t surprised by PG&E’s response so far,” Breed and Herrera said. “We’re also not giving up. Now more than ever, it is clear that we must take back control of San Francisco’s electric service and achieve energy independence.”

Newsom sent letters to Johnson, Batjer

Newsom on Oct. 14 sent letters to Johnson and Batjer related to the shutoff.

In his letter to Johnson, Newsom wrote, “The unacceptable scope and duration of this outage was the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety, mismanagement, inadequate investment in fire safety and fire prevention measures, and neglect of critical infrastructure.”

Newsom said that PG&E “has an obligation to the customers affected by the company’s inadequate preparation and failed execution of this power shutoff event. Lives and commerce were interrupted. Too much hardship was caused.”

The governor said that given the utility’s “extreme failures in implementing the PSPS, I urge you to provide affected customers an automatic credit or rebate of $100 per residential customer and $250 per small business as some compensation for their hardships. This rebate should be funded by shareholders, not ratepayers.”

In an Oct. 18 response to Newsom’s letter, Johnson said he believes the company’s decision to execute this PSPS “for the safety of our customers and the communities we are privileged to serve was the right decision.  A Public Safety Power Shutoff has a single purpose: to prevent catastrophic wildfires.  The recent PSPS may have done just that, in weather conditions and with physical impacts that certainly could have caused such a disaster and which did so in other parts of the state.”

Johnson also said that the utility is “considering your request for some form of restitution to affected customers, but believe this is most appropriately an issue for discussion after the CPUC’s review of the event, particularly on its scope and duration.”

In addition, Johnson said he has read and heard comments about PG&E’s motives in instituting the PSPS and whether it can be trusted to do the right thing. “In this vein, I think a policy conversation is in order about whether some other entity — CPUC, CAL FIRE, etc. — should be empowered as the authority to make such decisions.  I do not seek to shirk any responsibility with this suggestion but am interested in bolstering the public confidence required for such decisions to be effective,” he wrote to Newsom.

Mayors endorse bill that addresses planned outages

On Oct. 15, Breed was joined by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in announcing their support for California State Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 378.

According to a news release from Wiener’s office, SB 378 will:

  • Require that the CPUC create a process by which businesses, individuals, and local governments can recover costs accrued during a planned blackout (for example, by damaging equipment turned off too quickly) from the utility within two weeks and require that utility shareholders, not ratepayers, are responsible for these costs;
  • Promote better collection of data on utility equipment in order to assess risk level beforehand, as well as require reporting on the consequences of planned blackouts after the fact;
  • Level hourly fees on utilities during planned blackouts, and ensure that customers cannot be billed for transmission, distribution, and other costs during a planned blackout, in addition to a stipulation that a utility cannot profit from a planned blackout; and
  • Prevent utilities from spending ratepayer funds to oppose formation of new municipal utilities, distributed energy resource initiatives, “or any other attempt to offer consumers increased energy choice and more reliable options, similar to prohibitions already in place regarding CCA formation.”

Wiener introduced SB 378 on September 6 and it will be set for a hearing in January 2020.