Source: San Francisco Chronicle | By Julie Johnson
California regulators this week approved Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s safety plans and awarded the utility an annual certificate required for it to defray some costs if its power lines start new destructive fires.
While the certificate is meant to give the state oversight of the company’s wildfire prevention work, consumer advocates claim it is tantamount to permission for PG&E to continue putting lives and property at risk.
The certificate was issued Monday by the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, just one week before Sonoma County prosecutors are scheduled to begin presenting evidence that PG&E was criminally negligent in the 2019 Kincade Fire, which destroyed 374 buildings and burned 78,000 acres. And just last month, Cal Fire announced that PG&E equipment started the 2021 Dixie Fire that burned nearly 1 million acres in the northern Sierra, nearly destroying the historic Gold Rush town of Greenville (Plumas County).
“If you keep getting driving tickets, you eventually lose your license,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network. “It seems they (PG&E executives) keep getting violations and they never lose their license.”
This is the second year PG&E has been required to seek annual approval for its fire prevention plans, from its strategies for removing dangerous vegetation near power lines to its policies for executive compensation if its fires turn deadly.
The certificates are required for investor-owned utilities to recover some of their wildfire costs from ratepayers and tap into the state’s $21 billion wildfire insurance fund.
PG&E defended its safety efforts in a statement to The Chronicle, saying it was “taking a leading role in reducing the risk of wildfires” and “taking steps every day to improve the safety and reliability of our energy system.”
“We welcome continued feedback from our regulators, our new independent safety monitor, other stakeholders and our customers about our performance, because we know this makes us better and safer,” the company said in a statement. “We know we have more work to do, and we are committed to doing it the right way for our customers and communities.”
The process was created under Assembly Bill 1054, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, to require investor-owned electric companies to get annual safety certifications from the state. The first certificates were issued last year by the California Public Utilities Commission. Oversight was then shifted to the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety to separate the commission’s role setting electricity rates with those overseeing utilities’ safety practices.
The state’s other utilities, including Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, which have also been blamed for destructive fires in recent years, must also seek these annual safety certificates.
In its announcement of the certificate, the Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety said the company had completed all the documentation required by law and cautioned against viewing the certificate as a declaration that the utility’s operations are completely safe.
“Issuance of the safety certification does not constitute an affirmation by Energy Safety that PG&E has taken all possible steps to prevent its equipment from causing wildfires,” the agency stated. “Nor does it shield PG&E from liability or litigation.”
State Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who sits on the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, said through a spokesperson that the system is designed to protect ratepayers from added costs when utilities must borrow money to make improvements to the electrical grid and reduce fire risk. Dodd said the Legislature has given the state PUC “countless tools to rein in PG&E” and should take stronger steps to hold the utility responsible for the fires it starts.
“I know the governor has the same priorities,” Dodd said.
But the timing of the certificate came as a shock to consumer advocates.
State regulators issued the certificate before the Feb. 10 deadline, days before a group of consumer advocates said they were scheduled to meet with the Governor’s Office to ask Newsom to intervene.
Mari Rose Taruc, coordinator of the Reclaim Our Power Utility Justice Campaign, said they had hoped to convince the governor to put PG&E under an enhanced level of oversight outlined under AB1054 for utilities that continue causing fires, but the certificate was issued before they could make their case.
“How can we have a safer energy system that doesn’t burn us down or choke us out or shut (the electricity) off?” said Taruc, who added that Californians need Newsom to muster “the political will to make these decisions around moving us away from the dangers of PG&E into charting a new path.”
The safety certificate program was designed to follow utilities through years and decades of safety updates — recognition that crucial improvements can’t happen overnight, said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program who served as an adviser to legislators when the system was being created. Until he stepped down last month, Wara served on the California Catastrophe Response Council, which oversees the state’s wildfire insurance fund.
The state’s months-long review process before issuing the safety certificate provides that accountability, Wara said.
“We needed to see a lot more detail and have a lot more oversight of what the utilities were doing to improve the safety of their systems,” Wara said. “And we weren’t going to give the utilities access to this wildfire fund, this big insurance mechanism, unless they were making significant progress.”