Riverside County supervisors Tuesday are slated to direct staff to examine the impacts of the state’s “public safety power shutoff” policy, which authorizes utilities to implement blackouts to mitigate wildfire risks, and put state and federal lobbyists to work representing the county’s concerns in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Manuel Perez are asking the entire Board of Supervisors to support a “remedies plan” that directly addresses the California Public Utilities Commission mandate.
The supervisors expressed concern in documents posted to the board’s Tuesday agenda that the CPUC directive to investor-owned utilities will mean costs to the county and municipalities that cannot currently be recouped, including for providing temporary shelter to residents who find themselves in the dark because an electrical provider deactivated circuits to prevent arcing or sparks in the event transmission lines fail during Santa Ana winds or extreme heat.
“It is in the best interest of all parties to develop a pathway, through a collaborative effort, to reimburse for services rendered,” the supervisors wrote.
They are seeking a legislative fix, possibly at both the state and federal levels, that ensures local government agencies are reimbursed for costs stemming from future public safety power shutoffs, also known as “de-energization.”
The CPUC issued an order on May 30 in response to SB 901, authored by Sen. William Dodd, D-San Francisco, and signed into law in September, which requires investor-owned utilities to expedite the creation of protocols for when and how to implement shutoffs.
Southern California Edison is one of the utilities under pressure. The company serves large swaths of Riverside County, and it has already exercised a shutoff to mitigate fire hazards, which occurred in December 2017, impacting the mountain communities of Idyllwild and Pine Cove, where just over 8,000 SCE customers lost electricity for hours during a Red Flag event. It is unclear how many customers received advance notice of the outage. The CPUC wants utilities to give at least two hours warning to impacted parties.
Along with SCE, Pacific Gas & Electric, now under bankruptcy protection, and San Diego Gas & Electric are contending with a raft of regulations added to the Public Utilities Code as a result of SB 901.
The bill mandates penalties up to $100,000 for each violation of any CPUC decree, decision or rule. An electrical corporation is specifically prohibited from recovering its penalty costs by passing them on to customers.
The legislation also mandates that utilities, at their own expense, develop and adhere to wildfire mitigation plans that involve periodically de-energizing parts of the grid, reducing excess vegetation and taking other steps to prevent wind-driven brush fires. Utilities are subject to independent evaluations, for which they must pay, to assess compliance.
The bill even imposes limitations on payroll reductions when and if an investor-owned utility changes hands.
The legislation was largely a response to multiple destructive wildfires in the autumns of 2017 and 2018. Among the worst was the Thomas Fire, which destroyed more than 280,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017, as well as the Camp Fire, now believed to be the deadliest wildfire in state history, consuming more than 150,000 acres, killing nearly 100 people and decimating the town of Paradise in November 2018.
Downed PG&E lines have been blamed for igniting that blaze.
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