California PUC proposes guidelines for ‘last resort’ de-energizations as wildfire season looms

Dive Brief:

  • California regulators have proposed guidelines for how investor-owned electric utilities (IOUs) should notify customers in the event power lines must be de-energized, including development of a statewide education campaign about the Public Safety Power Shut-offs (PSPS) which are designed to reduce the risk of equipment sparking a wildfire.
  • The California Public Utilities Commission issued the proposed decision Friday, also laying out regulators’ “overarching de-energization strategy.” A key tenet is the idea that IOUs may deploy de-energization only “as a measure of last resort.”
  • The CPUC is rushing to approve utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans as they prepare for the next high-risk season, which typically begins in mid-summer. Regulators are aiming to have plans approved by May, giving utilities some time for implementation.

Dive Insight:

The proposed decision clarifies that utilities must exhaust other options before de-energizing power lines, because the impacts can be extreme, widespread and dangerous. Pacific Gas & Electric last week revealed that its PSPS plan could mean millions in San Francisco lose power in the event it is forced to de-energize certain transmission lines — despite little wildfire danger to the city.

In addition to the general inconvenience of a power outage, the regulators’ order notes critical concerns with potential shut-offs including: public safety issues related to lighting and street signals, wells for pumping water, power to police and fire facilities, telecommunications and home medical devices.

“The electric investor-owned utilities must deploy de-energization as a measure of last resort,” the commission order lays out. “Under no circumstances may the utilities employ de-energization solely as a means of reducing their own liability risk from utility-infrastructure wildfire ignitions.”

California utilities have faced billions in liability exposure in instances where an IOU’s equipment was found to have sparked a blaze, and PG&E went into bankruptcy in part because of mounting fire-related costs.

The proposed “over-arching de-energization guidelines” include calling for utilities to:

  • Develop notification and communication protocols and systems that reach customers “no matter where the customer is located and deliver messaging in an understandable manner.”
  • Coordinate with the state’s fire investigator and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services “to engage in a statewide public education and outreach campaign.”
  • Report on “lessons learned” from each de-energization event, including instances when de-energization protocols are initiated but the PSPS does not occur, “in order to further refine de-energization practices.”
  • Work together to “share information and advice in order to create effective and safe​ de-energization programs at each utility and to ensure that utilities are sharing consistent information with public safety partners.”

Customer advocates say they are pleased to see many of the general principles enumerated in the proposed decision.

“The ultimate goal is to have safe electricity and for utilities to stop igniting fires. Whether it is complying with tree trimming regulations or repairing a transmission tower that is obviously damaged, safe operations shouldn’t require massive shutoffs, which themselves create other safety hazards,” Mindy Spatt, communications chief for The Utility Reform Network, told Utility Dive.

Spatt said the proposed decision was aligned with TURN on key points like development of de-energization standards, post-event reporting requirements and the “last resort” standard, and the group will be watching to see whether any commissioners propose alternative decisions.