Governor launches blackout probe as PG&E flags tie to new fires

By Anne C. Mulkern, Peter Behr | 10/29/2019 07:35 AM EDT

California will scrutinize deliberate power shut-offs by utilities and potentially fine them $100,000 per day for rule violations, Gov. Gavin Newsom said yesterday.

An aerial photo of last year's deadly Camp Fire, which was started by a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transmission line.

An aerial photo of last year's deadly Camp Fire, which was started by a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transmission line. Stuart Rankin/Flickr

California will scrutinize deliberate power shut-offs by utilities and potentially fine them $100,000 per day for rule violations, Gov. Gavin Newsom said yesterday.

The California Public Utilities Commission is launching the inquiry into whether utilities are meeting new rules for advance warnings of blackouts and other parameters. The Democratic governor announced the move amid a torrent of criticism as nearly 600,000 Northern California residents remained without electricity, some for the third day.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the biggest utility in the state, worked to restore power following the third recent deliberate blackout, at its peak affecting more than 2 million people across a swath of Northern California.


PG&E argues that cutting power is needed during times of high winds that can blow trees and branches into power lines, potentially igniting deadly blazes. Wind gusts topped 90 mph in some locations, the utility said Sunday. That hasn’t softened the outrage of many who argue they live in places without those winds and were in the dark with spoiled food and no hot water.

PG&E has warned it likely will shut off power again tomorrow, as high wind gusts restart. It could affect 240,000 to 600,000 customers. The high end will happen if two transmission lines shut off for safety remain out of service because an inspection turns up damage.

"I want to see the CPUC launch a total reform of power shutoff rules and regulations," Newsom said in a statement. "Utilities must be held accountable and be aggressively penalized for their overreliance on [Public Safety Power Shutoffs or PSPS], and the product of this investigation must be new rules and regulations to do that. I also want to see customers not charged for PSPS. It seems obvious, but under the current rules, utilities can do just that. It’s unacceptable and must be remedied."

Despite the power shut-off, several new fires started in the nation’s most populous state. They spawned new questions about whether PG&E’s equipment sparked blazes. Two fires ignited Sunday afternoon in Lafayette, in Contra Costa County east of Berkeley. Another small fire started in Milpitas in Santa Clara County. Those broke out in areas where PG&E has reported damaged power line equipment.

PG&E previously revealed it had an equipment failure at a transmission tower near the start of the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County (Energywire, Oct. 25). The blaze has burned more than 66,000 acres, destroying 96 structures. It was just 5% contained.

In one of the latest fires, the utility told the CPUC that one of its fire monitors reported seeing a downed power pole and transformer in the vicinity of one of the blazes. The Contra Costa Fire Department told the PG&E representative that it considered the transformer a potential ignition source, the utility report said.

A PG&E fire monitor also reported an equipment issue at a second location in the fire zone along State Route 24 in Contra Costa County. That one involved contact between a broken lashing wire wrapped around a communications cable and a nearby PG&E distribution power line. It also was viewed as a potential fire trigger by the fire department, PG&E reported.

In the Milpitas Fire, late Sunday night a fire monitor noted a wire down and two houses, two cars and a shed damaged. A Milpitas Fire Department investigator informed the PG&E worker "that he was looking at the downed wire as a potential ignition source," PG&E’s report said.

Andrew Vesey, PG&E’s CEO and president, told reporters yesterday that those reports filed with the CPUC "don’t talk about causation," just that the utility had malfunctions in the location of the fire. A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigation will determine fault.

Asked why lines in those areas were not shut off, Vesey said the utility looks at minimizing the opportunity for catastrophic fires. Its calculation includes wind speeds, amounts of potential fire fuel and the potential for fire spread. Those elements did not indicate shut-offs were needed where the Lafayette and Milpitas fires started.

"If we wanted to prevent everything from happening then we’d have to shut the whole system down, and that’s just not acceptable," Vesey told reporters.

PG&E is in bankruptcy reorganization as it deals with $30 billion in liabilities from fires in 2017 and 2018. If it’s found responsible for new fires, that would complicate emerging from bankruptcy, Michael Wara, a Stanford University professor and a member of the California Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery, has said.

The state enacted a law last year that ties utility executive and manager pay to public safety outcomes. Utilities’ boards of directors must have a public safety expert who consults with the CPUC. Utilities under that same measure must spend $5 billion each on public safety investments.

"We are going to be very aggressive" in ensuring that some funds are spent on projects that are three, six and nine months out, Newsom said yesterday.

He added that new CPUC President Marybel Batjer is "tough-minded" and wants to act assertively. Newsom criticized past inaction by the CPUC, saying it didn’t meet the demands of the last two decades and "that’s on everybody."

"Mother Nature has joined the conversation in a way she was not engaged in the past," he said, noting the state’s historic drought followed by torrential rains. "She bats last and she bats a thousand."

A ‘clean energy’ pause?

The repeat deliberate blackouts spawned lawmaker moves to force changes. Two Republicans representing the region near where last year’s deadly Camp Fire burned — north of Sacramento — announced they plan to offer legislation that would pause a state law requiring 100% "clean energy" electricity by 2045. Complying with that costs PG&E $2.4 billion annually, said state Sen. Jim Nielsen and state Assemblyman James Gallagher.

The planned measure would direct that spending into utility infrastructure upgrades and cutting back forests. It would pause the renewables mandate, S.B. 100, "until infrastructure and vegetation management conditions are improved," they said in a statement.

"PG&E needs to get back to the basics of providing safe and reliable power," Gallagher said. "There is no doubt that PG&E’s mismanagement is the primary culprit in these devastating fires and PSPS events. But policies coming out of the State Capitol that distract from these primary objectives only make matters worse."

Newsom said that he needed to look at the details of the planned measure, but "the spirit of a hyper, laserlike focus on public safety, I absolutely embrace."

"That’s the kind of accountability that we look forward to at the Public Utility Commission, a prioritization of public safety improvements," he added.

State Assemblyman Marc Levine (D) said he would offer a bill allowing the CPUC to temporarily appoint a public administrator to oversee management of PG&E. The agency would first create a test to determine whether that should happen. It would include an analysis of PG&E’s financial health, the reliability of the utility’s infrastructure and its safety record.

The public administrator, if appointed, would work with PG&E leadership on decisions to restore infrastructure and ensure safety standards were followed.

Newsom yesterday further explained comments he made encouraging Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to bid for the assets of PG&E. Newsom said that he wanted "as many people bidding for the assets of Pacific Gas & Electric as possible. … We continue to look for bidders large and small all across this country."

That includes cities looking to take over parts of the system. San Francisco has said it’s interested in acquiring PG&E infrastructure in the city. Doing so is very costly, however, and can involve long court battles (Energywire, Jan. 18).

Newsom additionally faced pushback on his request that utilities should pay residents $100 each and businesses $250 each for damages related to the forced power outages. A reporter said he’d talked to people who said those amounts were "paltry" compared with costs.

"That’s correct," Newsom said. Along with the CPUC, he said, "we’re looking at the fixed charges on utility bills as one form of potential relief and allowing credits on that."

But he conceded it could be difficult. San Diego Gas & Electric has done power shut-offs in recent years, and "they do not reimburse for power shut-offs," Newsom said. "That’s been an industry practice."

Angry residents vented on Twitter and Facebook.

"Butte county now without [power] for 2 weeks all but 1 day! Paradise new neighbors haven’t suffered enough!?!!" resident Des Ray wrote on PG&E’s Facebook page, referring to the area hit by last year’s deadly Camp Fire. "My husband needs his breathing machine and sons insulin needs refrigeration!! Enough is enough!! Lost food again twice!!"

Bringing in help

PG&E has asked for 1,000 volunteers from other utilities to help inspect and rebuild portions of the grid damaged by fires in its Northern California service territory.

So far, "north of 500" have responded, said Scott Aaronson, vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned electric utilities.

They represent 22 EEI member companies from 19 states, he said, including New York-based Consolidated Edison Inc. and New Jersey’s Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. By 6 p.m. yesterday, the number of committed linemen was up to 660, EEI said.

"Lines that were deenergized to protect property and people need to be inspected before they can be reenergized. And if damage is found, then repair work has to be done, as well," Aaronson said.

Getting personnel to areas in California that require aid is more arduous than in the eastern United States, he added.

"When you’re looking at an East Coast response, there are a lot more companies in a smaller geographic area," Aaronson said. But in the West, the "closest drive times are two or three days at best" for the convoys of repair trucks.

Reporter Rod Kuckro contributed.

This story also appears in Climatewire.