The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Wednesday launched a statewide investigation of how major utilities have used preventive power shutoffs to curb wildfires, noting that it intends to hold the power companies accountable for their actions during those increasingly controversial events.
In addition, the CPUC also set a public hearing for Nov. 20 in which the senior executives of the major communications companies operating in the state will be asked to give an accounting of their operations during the wildfires and public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), when there were numerous accounts of cell phone service failure.
When the power utilities plan and implement preventive shutoffs, the CPUC's investigation strives to determine whether there is a "proper balance" of the conflicting needs for safety and service reliability.
For the latest PSPS, the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division will evaluate the utilities' actions before, during and after the events. "The evaluation will include quality of internal coordination, situational awareness, external communications and the PSPS pre-planning and execution," according to the commission order.
Considered a first phase of the overall investigation, the safety division is to present a public report on this part of its work, and in the next phase, an enforcement proceeding "may be opened" addressing any findings of noncompliance with CPUC rules and regulations, said commission spokesperson Terrie Prosper.
The investigation is just one of several steps state regulators are taking regarding the PSPS. The CPUC has already launched a review of PSPS guidelines and protocols under a separate rulemaking. Moreover, CPUC President Marybel Batjer on Tuesday ordered bankruptcy-bound Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) to demonstrate why it should not be sanctioned for its PSPS implementations throughout October this year.
Echoing the utility's past reactions to increasing state regulatory oversight, PG&E spokesperson James Noonan said management "appreciates" the continued "feedback" the company is getting from regulators, Gov. Gavin Newsom, state agencies, communities and customers. "We've taken those requests and suggestions seriously, implemented many of them in real time, and are working to implement more for potential future PSPS events," Noonan said.
The San Francisco-based combination utility realizes the PSPS are "not sustainable" long term, but they were the "correct decisions" when applied last month. PG&E will continue to work closely with all stakeholders, but particularly fire, emergency management and the CPUC representatives, Noonan said.
Farther south, Southern California Edison Co. (SCE) spokesperson Robert Laffoon Villegas acknowledged the "disruptiveness" of the power shutoffs and said his utility does not "make those decisions lightly."
"We will actively participate in the CPUC process seeking to address this very important topic for all of our customers and for the safety of the communities we serve," Laffoon Villegas said of Wednesday’s announcement.
Separately, SCE reached a $360 million settlement to fire and flood events that occured between 2017 and 2018.
SCE said it reached a settlement with 23 local communities in three counties involved in the 2017 Thomas and Koenigstein fires and the 2018 Montecito mud flow and Woolsey Fire. Entities in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties will share in the deal, SCE said.
Noting the agreements cover claims from various government entities in the three counties, CEO of SCE's parent company Edison International Pedro Pizarro said the Rosemead, CA-based utility company is willing to strike similar settlements with others making claims related to the devastating events. Pizarro also committed to making "substantial investments" in utility infrastructure, such as its proposed $582 million Grid Safety and Resiliency Program.