Regulators OK PG&E's Big Wildfire Safety Program and Set New Rules for Preemptive Blackouts

3 min
PG&E transmission lines like these in South San Francisco could be shut down during periods of extreme fire danger.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California utility regulators have approved a series of plans designed to improve the wildfire safety of the state's power utilities and prevent a repeat of the catastrophes that wiped out more than 20,000 homes and killed more than 130 people over the last two years.

In a series of unanimous votes, the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved state-mandated wildfire mitigation plans for PG&E and the state's two other major utilities. The commission also voted 5-0 to adopt expanded guidelines for a program that allows the state's big power providers to shut off electricity during times of high fire danger.

The decisions will have far-reaching impacts on California residents, most of whom now face at least the hypothetical possibility of losing power during extreme fire weather and will be asked in future years to foot all or part of the bill for the utilities' safety upgrades.

CPUC President Michael Picker emphasized that the decisions before the commission were just the beginning of a process to deal with increasingly dangerous wildfire conditions, especially in the state's high-threat fire areas.

"Given those changes that we're seeing in weather and changes that we're seeing in fire fuels, nobody who lives in wildfire hazard zones should count on a warning or should count on having reliable electricity," Picker said. "... So these new rules cannot solve all of our problems related to increasingly fierce wildfires, and all of us who live in those areas have to prepare."

Some recent CPUC meetings dealing with the future of PG&E — which has been implicated in starting some of the state's worst fires the past two years and declared bankruptcy in January in response to its looming legal liability for the blazes — have erupted in protest and demands to break up the company.

Not today. In fact, no one in the San Francisco auditorium where Thursday's meeting took place even commented on PG&E's wildfire mitigation plan. The plan, which involves a vast increase in inspections of its lines, poles and other equipment — and an equally sweeping effort to find and remove hazardous trees near power lines — could cost as much as $2.3 billion this year.

The only dissenting comment voiced during the meeting came from a series of disability rights advocates who criticized the power shutoff decision for failing to adequately account for the hardships the loss of electricity will impose on vulnerable populations. The biggest worry involves the shutdown of medical equipment, like respirators or dialysis machines, if power is cut off.

The CPUC's decision on power shutoffs acknowledges those concerns but stops short of suggesting concrete action to address them. Instead, the commission is urging the major utilities to develop lists of customers with disabilities — for instance, by encouraging people to sign up with PG&E's medical baseline program — and develop more comprehensive programs to alert them when blackouts are being considered.

Sydney Pickern, an attorney with the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, told commission members that de-energization of power lines should be formally treated as an emergency situation.

"The absence of power has life-threatening consequences similar to a natural disaster," Pickern said. "Just like when local jurisdictions activate their alerting provisions during emergencies, and those alerting provisions must be accessible to the entire affected population, utilities should be held to the same standards."

Commission president Picker said at the close of Thursday's meeting he will leave the agency later this year. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him in 2014 in the midst of a controversy over the close relationship between senior commission officials and PG&E in the wake of the San Bruno pipeline disaster.

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