CPUC opens investigation to examine recent power shutoff events

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Nov. 13 opened an investigation to examine recent Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events in the state.

The formal investigation will assess whether the state’s investor-owned electric utilities properly balanced the need to provide safe and reliable service when planning and executing their recent PSPS events.

The electric utilities under investigation are Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Liberty Utilities/CalPeco Electric, Bear Valley Electric Service, and Pacific Power, a division of PacifiCorp. 

In September and October 2019, the state’s investor-owned electric utilities, notably PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E, proactively de-energized power lines during high wildfire danger weather conditions to reduce the risk of utility infrastructure starting wildfires. 

PG&E on Oct. 26 reported that it had begun de-energization of its electrical lines as part of a PSPS and said the shutoff was expected to impact approximately 940,000 customers in 38 counties. At the time, this was the third PSPS for the utility in October. On Tuesday, Oct. 29, PG&E initiated a new PSPS.

First phase of PUC proceeding

In the first phase of the proceeding, the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division will oversee an evaluation of the utilities’ actions prior to, during, and after the PSPS events that occurred in late 2019.

The evaluation will include the quality of the utilities’ internal coordination, situational awareness, external communication, and pre-planning and execution for the PSPS events.  The results of the Safety and Enforcement Division’s investigation will be presented in a public report.

“The proceeding will provide a comprehensive review of both the effectiveness and impacts of all phases of the recent PSPS events to determine whether further changes to existing de-energization regulations and requirements are necessary to ensure public safety,” the PUC said.  

An enforcement phase may be opened to address finding of non-compliance with CPUC rules and regulations, it noted.

The CPUC said that initiating this investigation is one of several actions it is taking in response to recent PSPS events. The proceeding may inform but will not duplicate the CPUC’s re-examination of current PSPS guidelines and protocols currently underway, it noted.

In addition, on November 12, CPUC President Marybel Batjer ordered PG&E to demonstrate why it shouldn’t be sanctioned for its PSPS events implemented throughout October 2019.

Calif. is scoping plan for PG&E, including possible publicly owned option

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called on various stakeholders to meet in order to accelerate a consensual resolution to PG&E’s bankruptcy cases that will lead to the creation of a new entity.

At the same time, Newsom warned on Nov. 1 that if the parties fail to reach an agreement quickly “to begin this process of transformation, the state will not hesitate to step in and restructure the utility” and said that “all options are on the table.”

He said that the state is “leaning in on scoping a state backup strategy and plan and we are committed to doing that concurrently as we encourage these parties to move forward with their own transformational efforts to get PG&E out of bankruptcy.”

Calif. mayors, county officials unveil customer-owned plan for PG&E

In a Nov. 4 letter to the CPUC, a large group of California mayors and county officials say that there are several compelling reasons for transforming PG&E into a customer-owned utility including being able to raise capital from a broad pool of debt financing in amounts substantially greater than can an investor-owned PG&E, and at much lower cost.

Los Angeles Times editorial calls for public ownership to be actively explored

In an editorial posted on Nov. 3, the Los Angeles Times said that “We’ve reached a point where public ownership of PG&E shouldn’t just be on the table, it should be actively explored by state and local officials.”

There are several different routes to public ownership of a utility, the editorial noted. “One is for cities to buy out the electrical infrastructure within their borders. ‘Municipalization,’ as it is called, has gained traction in northern California as the public’s simmering anger toward PG&E spiked with its wide-scale pre-emptive power shutoffs this month. Other ideas that have been floated involve breaking the company into regional utilities or, alternately, creating one big public utility district that would subsume PG&E completely. All of the ideas are worth consideration.”

State senator plans to introduce bill

Meanwhile. California State Sen. Scott Wiener says efforts to restructure PG&E “must include an option to turn the embattled, investor-owned utility into a public entity,” wrote Dustin Gardiner in a Nov. 12 story for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Wiener said he plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature early next year that would require PG&E to become a government-owned utility, though he said details of the proposal are ‘still very preliminary,’” Gardiner reported.