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Calif. regulators zero in on power shut-off rules to prevent wildfires

California regulators opened a proceeding to examine utility power line de-energization procedures that are aimed at preventing electricity-sparked wildfires following the state's worst-ever fire in which electrical equipment is the suspected cause.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Dec. 13 ordered the examination of proactive power shut-off policies for all investor-owned utilities under its jurisdiction in the wake of the Camp Fire, which may have started on Nov. 8 under or near one of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s transmission towers about a mile northeast of Pulga, Calif.

The PG&E Corp. subsidiary, known as PG&E, on Nov. 27 reported to the commission that it had notified about 70,000 customers on Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 that the utility might have to proactively turn off power for public safety based on weather forecasts, but called off the warning on the afternoon of Nov. 8. The warning extended over parts of nine counties, including Butte County, in which the Camp Fire was first reported at 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8. PG&E's report did not mention the Camp Fire, which had already ignited as its employees contacted thousands of customers to tell them conditions had improved so the shut-off would not be needed after all.

PUC Safety and Enforcement Division Director Elizaveta Malashenko, to whom PG&E addressed its report, did not specifically mention the Camp Fire when she introduced the resolution for the PUC to undertake a new rulemaking. Malashenko said the commission would use the proceeding to look at details of how utilities make decisions to de-energize power lines. She pointed to a July PUC resolution to extend the proactive power line shut-off requirements for notifying customers and filing reports to PG&E and Edison International subsidiary Southern California Edison Co.

Commission President Michael Picker said Sempra Energy subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric Co., or SDG&E, initiated its proactive power shut-off program after fires raged through Southern California in 2006. It was not until 2012 that the PUC allowed SDG&E authority to shut off power as a fire-prevention measure against severe Santa Ana winds, and the requirements of that utility's program were extended to PG&E and SoCalEd only with the PUC's July decision.

Malashenko said proactive shut-offs are just one tool utilities should use in addressing wildfire threats and pointed to a separate proceeding in which the PUC is addressing wildfire mitigation plans as required in the recently passed state Senate Bill 901. She and Picker said de-energization issues alone are complicated enough to warrant the separate proceeding.

For example, Picker said the impact of power shut-offs on stop lights along evacuation routes and water supply pumps that firefighters depend upon must be considered and de-energization rules and practices must be coordinated with emergency response agencies.

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves said public confusion and concerns about the proactive power outages require clear notices from utilities, and she pointed to the first public speaker's remark at the start of the meeting when Howard Matis of Oakland, Calif., said, "'De-energization' is not an English word. No one understands what that is. That's a PR PG&E word. It should be called wildfire blackouts."

Proactive power cutoff policies open another legal challenge for the utilities as they grapple with wildfire liabilities. Law firms collectively calling themselves the Northern California Fire Lawyers filed suit Nov. 13 in San Francisco County Superior Court, alleging among other things that despite having notified customers of the possibility it would turn off power for safety reasons, Pacific Gas and Electric decided not to do so, despite its duty to shut down electrical operations in emergency situations.

"It was not until November 9, 2018, after the Camp Fire already incinerated the town of Paradise, that PG&E turned off power to some of its customers," the suit said.