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California opens investigation into companies shutting off power during wildfires

California's Public Utilities Commission announced Monday it is launching a formal investigation into investor-owned utilities shutting off power during wild...

Posted: Oct 29, 2019 3:26 AM
Updated: Oct 29, 2019 3:33 AM

California's Public Utilities Commission announced Monday it is launching a formal investigation into investor-owned utilities shutting off power during wildfires.

The commission's safety and enforcement division said it will open the investigation in the next 30 days to look at the Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) events that took place in 2019, and whether utility companies -- such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) -- are complying with rules, regulations and actions to hold the companies accountable, according to a release from the commission.

"The state cannot continue to experience PSPS events on the scope and scale Californians have experienced this month, nor should Californians be subject to the poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited," said commission President Marybel Batjer. "The CPUC will demand that utilities prepare for and execute PSPS events in a way that greatly reduces impacts on Californians."

Nearly a million homes and businesses went dark in northern and central California over the weekend as PG&E shut off power to avoid "catastrophic" wildfires.

The company has been under scrutiny in recent years for the role its equipment played in several devastating fires across the state, including last year's deadly Camp Fire.

PG&E has seriously considered the requests and suggestions from the commission, Gov. Gavin Newsom and their customers, the company said in a statement.

"While we recognize that the scope of these events is unsustainable in the long term, it was the correct decision given the large-scale, historic weather event and ensuing equipment damage that unfolded across our service area," said Jennifer Robison, the utility company's spokeswoman.

Efforts to protect customers and communities often include "judicious use of PSPS," Southern California Edison, another utility company, said in a statement.

"We understand these PSPS events are disruptive and we don't make those decisions lightly. We do everything we can to minimize the impact and communicate to customers actively," said Julia Roether, SCE spokesperson. "The safety of the public, our employees and first responders is our foremost priority. We will continue to coordinate closely with federal, state and local officials on these matters."

Newsom said utility companies deserve to be "aggressively penalized" for relying so much on these power shutoffs. He said utilities could be fined $100,000 per day, per incident if the PSPS protocols are breached.

"The product of this investigation must be new rules and regulations," Newsom's statement read. "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."

Newsom vowed the commission will be aggressive in enforcing those protocols.

In addition to the investigation, the PSPS protocol used will be reevaluated. The commission also plans to look at decreasing the need to shut off power during events such as wildfires and use partnerships in the technology community to identify projects capable of minimizing the need to shut off power.

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