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Calif. governor and regulators demand PG&E act to avoid future power disruptions

In response to a directive from Gov. Gavin Newsom, California's top utility regulator ordered Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to take multiple actions to ensure mistakes in its interactions with customers are not repeated in the aftermath of the utility's widespread proactive power shutoff to keep its equipment from starting wildfires.

Newsom demanded the PG&E Corp. subsidiary account for its decisionmaking failures that resulted in chaos and confusion for many of the 738,000 customers who had their power turned off for 48 hours or more during the period of Oct. 9 through Oct. 13.

California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer derided PG&E's "failures of execution" in communicating with customers, coordinating efforts to minimize impacts on an estimated two million people, and overall management of the public safety power shutoff.

PG&E must restore power to customers within 12 hours after wildfire hazard conditions pass, even if the utility has to call on state agencies and other utilities for mutual assistance, Batjer said in an Oct. 14 letter to PG&E Corp. CEO William Johnson. Batjer also demanded that the utility make infrastructure improvements, particularly on lines that serve the most people to limit the number of customers that lose power.

In addition, Batjer asked PG&E Corp., utility board chairs, Johnson and other senior officials to attend an Oct. 18 emergency meeting with the PUC to review the shutoffs. She also called on the utility to act immediately to improve its ability to communicate with and provide aide to its customers, coordinate with the commission and other state agencies, and manage power shutoffs, including power restorations.

The governor thanked Batjer for her "swift response" to his request that the PUC conduct a comprehensive inquiry and review of PG&E's actions.

"The scope and duration of this outage was unacceptable," Newsom said in an Oct. 14 letter to Batjer. "It was the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety, mismanagement, inadequate investment in fire safety and fire prevention measures and neglect of critical infrastructure."

The governor said the state must limit the scope and duration of proactive power shutoffs for wildfire prevention and ensure utilities are held accountable when their planning is poor and protocols are not followed. Newsom told PG&E to provide an automatic credit or rebate of $100 to each affected residential customer and $250 to each small business. He also called for transmission line improvements so proactive power turnoffs can be isolated to avoid such large-scale shutoffs in the future.

Johnson responded that he appreciated the governor's focus on the need for increased safety and stressed that PG&E did coordinate closely with state agencies during the event. But Johnson also acknowledged the utility fell short in its operations during the event but noted that no catastrophic wildfires started during the shutoffs.

"While we recognize this was a hardship for millions of people throughout Northern and Central California, we made that decision to keep customers and communities safe. That was the right decision," Johnson insisted.

PG&E said crews and contractors inspected about 27,500 miles of transmission and distribution lines involved in the shutoff and found more than 100 instances of damage, including downed power lines and trees that fell on lines. Any of those instances could have triggered a wildfire if the lines had been energized, PG&E said.

SCE has its own wildfire issues

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Fire Department reported that a major deadly fire in north Los Angeles started beneath a high voltage transmission tower but that the cause remains undetermined. Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co. and private insurance companies sent investigators to the site, the fire department said.

SCE submitted a terse statement to the PUC stating that its Gould-Sylmar 220-kV facilities were impacted "close-in-time to the reported time of the fire." The Saddleridge Fire was reported Oct. 10 at about 9 p.m. near Freeway 210 and Yarnell Street.

The fire burned about 8,400 acres, and one person died at a hospital after having a heart attack and three firefighters received minor injuries. The fire burned a small patch of turf at Sempra Energy subsidiary Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, but fire officials said that the company's natural gas infrastructure continued to provide service. While the storage facility has had a history of large methane leaks that compromised its operations, the fire department reported no leaks near the fire that could have been a risk to public safety.