California regulators on Monday outlined a five-month process for finalizing 2020 wildfire mitigation plans for the state’s major utilities, beginning with a two-day public workshop later this month, on Feb. 18 and 19.
The utility plans, particularly from bankruptcy-bound Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), have been subjected to various levels of criticism in the past from state elected officials and the five-member California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which must approve the plans.
The CPUC’s schedule anticipates a final decision on the plans in June, but in the meantime, PG&E also is dealing with a host of critics that want more proof that it can exit Chapter 11 proceedings over the same time frame and give more tangible assurance its system is getting safer and less prone to sparking wildfires as happened in 2017 and 2018.
Last Friday, an attorney for victims of the Camp Fire sparked by PG&E transmission lines injected more controversy by alleging that those same troublesome power lines are in ill-repair, according to an expert, but then subsequently altered the charges and refused to disclose the expert’s identity. The attorney is part of the Tort Claimants’ Committee in the ongoing Chapter 11 case.
At the same time, PG&E filed its 2020 fire mitigation plan, calling it an expansion of its ongoing mitigation program. The new aspects include: application of advanced grid technology, further hardening of the system, accelerated infrastructure inspections, enhanced vegetation management, and the use of real-time monitoring and situational awareness tools to better understand severe weather’s potential impact on the power system.
Separately, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been threatening a public takeover of the San Francisco-based combination utility, and a federal judge overseeing the utility’s five-year probation for a previous criminal conviction tied to a fatal natural gas transmission pipeline explosion a decade ago is insisting PG&E show more proof it has improved its safety practices.
In contrast, Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E), which lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to its role in several 2007 wildfires, submitted its latest wildfire mitigation plan last Friday, calling it a “strategic three-year guide.”
Since the 2007 fires, SDG&E has invested more than $1.5 billion to upgrade its system and operations against fires, including hardening, situation awareness, and customer outreach and communications programs. It also has created a major weather station, along with a fire science and innovation laboratory.
All of the utilities, including Southern California Edison Co., have included the controversial public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) in their mitigation plans that selectively curtail power service to customers in high fire-risk areas when temperatures, winds and dryness reach a critical mass.
“SDG&E is focused on implementing wildfire mitigation solutions that help reduce ignition potential and keep critical facilities and customers energized during PSPS events,” said Caroline Winn, COO of the Sempra combination utility. “At its core, our plan is about protecting people and property.”
Dry, windy conditions last fall prompted the California utilities to institute PSPS on multiple occasions, but PG&E faced the most criticism for extending its shutoffs to wide areas, including hundreds of thousands of customers in some instances.
As a result, earlier this month, the CPUC established new rules for implementing PSPS.
Aside from the regulatory machinations, political and legal developments continue to unfold, particularly for PG&E. The bankruptcy court approved the utility’s settlement with debtholders at the same time state and local elected officials took aim at taking over the multi-billion-dollar utility.
A San Francisco-based state senator last week proposed legislation which would turn PG&E into a publicly owned utility, the Northern California Energy Utility District, echoing the governor’s call for a public takeover. Sen. Scott Wiener said the proposal will “fundamentally and structurally reform PG&E.”
In this context, the city/county of San Francisco, which last September made a $2.5 billion offer for PG&E’s electricity infrastructure within the municipal boundaries and earlier this year conditionally approved a $3.1 billion bond issue to underwrite the purchase, has launched a new campaign, “Our City, Our Power,” to eventually take municipal control.
PG&E leaders have staunchly reminded the local elected officials that its system is not for sale.