November 2019 Senate Oversight Hearing on Electric Utility Power Shutoffs

On November 18, 2019, the California Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee held an Oversight Hearing on “Electric Utility Power Shutoffs: Identifying Lessons Learned and Actions to Protect Californians”. The purpose of the Committee hearing was to review the recent utility Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events and to learn what could be done to mitigate the associated risks, including unintended consequences. Panel presentations by the Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs), Administration and various Agency officials identified a wide-range of impacts from the power shutoffs, including school closures (whether or not the power was actually shut off), food spoilage, loss of cell service, including the critical ability to receive PSPS and evacuation information and 911 emergency assistance, and the lives of those endangered by the loss of electrically powered medical equipment, whether at home, in hospitals or long-term care facilities.

Legislators talked about the need to develop a comprehensive action plan, which will include legislation, oversight and funding through the state budget and require utilities to provide realistic timelines for work that the public can depend on and real accountability if goals are not met.

The general consensus was that the utilities, PG&E, in particular, have used PSPS too broadly with little or no strategic planning. In the future, PSPS events must be implemented in the most precise and strategic manner possible to minimize the number of impacted customers for the least amount of time with greatest amount of relief for affected businesses and households.

Some specifics:

  • SDG&E: According to SDG&E, the four basic pillars of wildfire mitigations are (1) forecasting fire danger so the utility can plan ahead, pre-position resources and respond to emergencies effectively; (2) hardening infrastructure in fire prone areas and deploying technologies to target and tailor outages to only the most endangered communities; (3) mitigating impacts of shutoffs with broad public outreach in collaboration with community organizations; (4) service restoration after a PSPS event. SDG&E’s long-term goal is to reduce or eliminate the need for power shutoffs through the strategic undergrounding of lines, use of covered conductors, circuit sectionalizing and fallen conductor protection devices and backup generation, including expanding the use of microgrids.
  • SCE: SCE has installed 479 of 850 planned weather stations and is on track to install 100 HD cameras, providing 90% coverage of SCE’s high fire risk areas by the end of 2019. SCE has installed nearly 400 miles of insulated/covered conductor wires and has proposed to install 6,000 miles of covered conductor wires by 2023, prioritizing its highest risk areas first. SCE has and plans to install fast acting fuses, which help to quickly isolate problem areas and limit outages, in thousands of locations. SCE actively identifies medical baseline/critical care/life support customers to ensure they get notification and have emergency plans and backup power, if needed. SCE supports the use of distributed energy resources and is open to the use of microgrids for backup power, but is concerned about the current high costs.
  • PG&E: During PG&E’s October PSPS events, over two million people were affected. According to PG&E, after the PG&E high wind events that triggered the PSPS events ended, PG&E inspected more than 32,000 miles of its lines and found hundreds of instances of equipment damage primarily from trees and branches blowing in from beyond the boundaries of vegetation management, which could have sparked catastrophic fires. Preventing this is “exactly and the sole reason” reason why PG&E calls PSPS events. PG&E acknowledged its performance implementing the recent PSPS events wasn’t perfect but PG&E was learning from each event and has improved its PSPS performance each time. After earlier failures with its website and call-in system, PG&Es notification system has been expanded and refined and worked without incident in subsequent PSPS events. PG&E said that the larger lesson learned is that repeatedly turning off people even in the interest of safety is not a sustainable solution. PG&E is using new tools and technologies, including weather stations and cameras and sectionalizing devices and temporary generation so it can better target shutoffs in the future.
  • CPUC President Batjer: PSPS is a tool intended to protect people and communities from harm, but when used haphazardly, it can generate the opposite effect. The CPUC’s task is to ensure any future use of PSPS is initiated and executed in a manner that is in the best interest of the impacted community. Although IOUs are ultimately responsible for managing their systems, the CPUC should not stop demanding better ways to reduce risk, use, scope and impacts of PSPS without compromising public safety. The utilities’ PSPS plans are only effective when implemented in a reasonable and competent manner and PG&E, in particular, was not prepared to manage such a large scale PSPS event.

In response to accusations that its use of PSPS was overly broad and not focused like SDG&E and SCE, PG&E noted that its transmission system is designed differently and it doesn’t yet have in place the extensive weather collection data, real time monitoring capabilities and sectionalizing devices that SDG&E and SCE have installed, although PG&E is worked to do so as fast as possible. Although Legislators disliked the answer, PG&E said it could take ten years to get to a point where the need for PSPS is non-existent or implemented only in a very surgical way.

The CPUC has taken immediate action to hold the IOUs responsible and to increase public safety. The CPUC held an emergency meeting to hear from top PG&E officials, its Safety Enforcement Division (SED) is investigating whether the IOUs properly balanced safety and service reliability when planning and executing the PSPS events and, on November 12th, CPUC President Batjer issued an order to show cause why PG&E should not be sanctioned for its PSPS actions.

Contact: Ron Liebert, Samantha Neumyer.