If you are a PG&E customer (and you don’t already have solar) – you may want to get a portable generator – it could be a long miserable summer when there’s wildfires. If you’re a PG&E customer, get ready for power blackouts this year to prevent wildfires.
State regulators May 30th, approved PG&E’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 PUC approved PG&E’s “wildfire mitigation plan,” in which blackouts could hit every one of PG&E’s 5.4 million households and businesses 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.
PG&E will have to justify those expenses during future proceedings in order to pass the costs along to ratepayers.
The PUC approved similar plans submitted by SoCal Edison, SD Gas & Electric and a host of smaller utilities that are regulated by the commission.
PUC Pres. Michael Picker said the utilities have to “really focus & isolate areas of risk, and only cut off power in those specific areas.” PG&E must also coordinate with locals so the public is warned in advance. With fire threats increasing, he said Californians should be ready for power outages — sometimes without notice if a fire knocks out communications.
A former chief of staff to late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, Picker also announced that he plans to retire this summer. The PUC presidency, held since late 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. But the passage of SB 901 (2018), a law that deals with costs of huge 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.
In 2019, 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. PG&E filed for BK 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. 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.
The decision comes as state officials continue to struggle with the question of wildfire liabilities. The state’s Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost & Recovery, urged lawmakers to change the legal doctrine that exposes utilities to liabilities if their equipment started a fire, regardless of whether the utility acted negligently.