A divided Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to refrain from taking any immediate steps to address impacts of the state’s “public safety power shutoff” policy, which authorizes utilities to implement blackouts to mitigate wildfire risks, based on a request from Southern California Edison.
“We are the largest utility and taxpayer in the county,” SCE spokesman Jeremy Goldman told the board during a hearing on the proposal by Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Manuel Perez. “Let’s delay this so we can continue dialogue.”
Hewitt and Perez expressed concern in documents posted to the board’s agenda that a California Public Utilities Commission ruling 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.
Hewitt and Perez argued that the county should be entitled to reimbursement from the state and other entities whenever public safety power shutoffs, also known as “de-energization,” occur and the county is saddled with costs as a result. They are seeking a legislative fix, possibly at both the state and federal levels, and wanted to direct Executive Office staff and the county’s lobbyists to initiate efforts in that vein.
However, after Goldman spoke to the issue, spotlighting progress by SCE in inspecting power lines, replacing equipment and eliminating overgrown vegetation to slash fire risks, Supervisors Karen Spiegel and Chuck Washington felt a two-week delay to gather more information from the utility would be fair.
“I’m happy to see SCE is being more proactive, trying to isolate potential threats,” Washington said. “It prevents a greater catastrophe going forward. I don’t mind waiting, so we can have more outreach with Edison.”
Hewitt and Perez countered that any conversations with SCE could continue while the county pursues objectives to lessen the future impacts of shutoffs.
“This is a huge problem, and we don’t have a metric for when these public safety shutoffs will go off,” Hewitt said. “We have critical care people out there who are at horrible risk. We don’t have good numbers on exactly who is impacted.”
Perez said shutoffs may put “the most vulnerable” residents at risk. He said there was no sense in waiting to delegate people to work on “getting money (from the state), drawing it down to the county.”
Board Chairman Kevin Jeffries sided with Spiegel and Washington, culminating in a 3-2 vote to reconsider Hewitt’s and Perez’s proposal at the board’s Aug. 6 meeting.
The CPUC issued a ruling in May in response to Senate Bill 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.
SCE 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.
Goldman told the board that customers are receiving alerts several days in advance of a potential de-energization. County Emergency Management Department Director Bruce Barton, however, complained that SCE has not been communicating with the county regarding “which circuits are monitored” and may be turned off in an emergency.
“We need communication to come through the Emergency Management Department,” he said, though acknowledging that the “lines of communication with Edison are better and better all the time.”
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.
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 in Butte County, the deadliest wildfire in state history, which consumed more than 150,000 acres, killed nearly 100 people and decimated the town of Paradise in November 2018.
Downed PG&E lines have been blamed for igniting that blaze.
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