California regulators are considering new rules governing how and when utilities shut off power as an attempt to prevent electrical equipment from sparking dangerous wildfires.
A proposal under consideration by the California Public Utilities Commission would examine the agency’s current rules on intentional blackouts and could result in more detailed state standards.
The plan is significant for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which is under intense scrutiny over whether its equipment sparked the state’s two most destructive wildfires, the 2017 Tubbs Fire and this year’s Camp Fire. PG&E’s new power shutoff program has been criticized both when it was fully implemented and when it was not.
A draft order the utilities commission will consider next Thursday in San Francisco notes that the state has been experiencing “unprecedented conditions” fueling extreme fire behavior.
“Exacerbating wildfire conditions are energized power lines and the potential of these lines to either spark or worsen an existing wildfire,” the document states.
Accordingly, it notes, utilities have chosen to shut off power to certain lines to reduce risk.
“However, de-energization can leave communities and essential facilities without power, which brings its own risks and hardships, particularly for vulnerable communities,” the draft order says.
The proposed regulatory process would look at the conditions under which utilities impose intentional blackouts, exploring whether the commission should should limit the practice and develop criteria for when it should be used. Regulators would also look at the best ways of notifying stakeholders, among other areas.
PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said in an email that the utility is supportive of the commission’s “continued efforts in looking into this critical issue.”
“We only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety and as a last resort during extreme weather conditions to reduce the risk of wildfire,” Doherty said. “We look forward to collaborating with the commission and participating in workshops related to this proceeding.”
In October, PG&E turned off power because of fire risk for the first time in several Northern California counties, prompting protests from residents who said the utility did not clearly communicate its plan.
Last month, PG&E told residents in the Sierra foothills to prepare for potential power losses because of dry and windy weather, but it ultimately decided not to pull the plug. In Butte County, the historically devastating Camp Fire had already started raging by the time the utility announced that “weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure.”
PG&E says it looks for several factors before cutting power, including whether the National Weather Service has declared a red-flag warning, humidity levels of 20 percent or lower, sustained winds of 20 to 25 mph with gusts of 40 to 45 mph, the condition of dry fuel and vegetation, observations from PG&E field crews and other site-specific considerations.
The need for protocols governing de-energizing power lines was identified in SB901, legislation passed this year that also — controversially — allowed utilities to pass some wildfire-related costs along to customers.
The bill’s author, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said he supports utilities shutting off the power because of fire danger.
“We’ve got to do whatever it takes. That’s one of the tools in the toolbox, until we have a more resilient electrical grid,” Dodd said. “I know it’s a great inconvenience, but the alternative is much more inconvenient.”
The commission’s latest de-energization efforts drew praise from The Utility Reform Network, an industry watchdog.
“We think it makes a lot more sense to have the same set of standards for all utilities,” said Mark Toney, the consumer group’s executive director.
The utilities commission has already scheduled two public workshops about de-energization, the first of which is next Friday in Santa Rosa, the area most devastated by the October 2017 wildfires. Another workshop is set for Jan. 9 in Calabasas (Los Angeles County).
Commission officials expect a proposed decision on de-energization rules to come be out next summer and a final decision to follow shortly afterward