On orders from the governor, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Monday launched a multi-faceted investigation of the major investor-owned electric utilities' wildfire preventive power shutoffs as fires rage throughout the state.
The CPUC regulators said the action was "urgent" and would be focused on public health and safety regarding the continued high risk of utility infrastructure, some of which has caused the fires. To date this year, nearly 6,000 fires had consumed at least 163,000 acres, destroyed 406 structures and killed three people.
In another day of multiple announcements, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the CPUC to create a set of rules for public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) for the utilities to follow. In addition, a wildfire resource website was launched for citizens. The governor also has met with first responders at the Kincade Fire that was sweeping through a wide swath of Northern California, including Napa and Sonoma counties.
Calling for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) not to charge customers for the power outages, Newsom said "it seems obvious, but under the current rules, utilities can charge customers who are shut off. This is unacceptable and must be remedied."
PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said the utility appreciated the feedback and said a "historic weather event" caused the latest planned shutoffs. "We’ve taken those requests and suggestions seriously and are working to implement many of them for this and future PSPS events," but he acknowledged that the recent action "is unsustainable in the long term."
Assemblymember Marc Levine, who represents the North Bay area that is struggling with the Kincade Fire, called for the CPUC to appoint a temporary public administrator to oversee PG&E’s operations. Under Levine’s proposal, the CPUC would create a test to assess whether a public administrator is needed.
“PG&E’s crisis of leadership is harming families and businesses throughout the state,” Levine said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, and I applaud CPUC President Marybel Batjer’s work to begin a thorough investigation of PG&E immediately."
The CPUC is using its mandate from this year's major wildfire law, Assembly Bill 1054, and last Friday's emergency meeting between regulators and PG&E to take action in five areas. In addition to the formal investigation, it is re-examining utility use of the shutoffs, protecting consumers, getting more immediate impact from utility wildfire mitigation plans and creating technology partnerships.
In the next 30 days, the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division will seek a formal investigation authorized by the five regulators to examine 2019 PSPS events, utility compliance with regulatory requirements, and any resulting violations and penalties.
"The state cannot continue to experience PSPS events on the scope and scale Californians have experienced this month, nor should citizens be subject to poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited," said Batjer, adding that the utilities must greatly reduce the impact on citizens from PSPS events.