California regulator to investigate utilities' mass fire-prevention power outages

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: PG&E works on power lines to repair damage caused by the Camp Fire in Paradise

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – The California Public Utilities Commission on Monday said it would open a formal investigation into big power outages imposed by utilities this month in an effort to prevent wildfires as high winds heightened risks across the state.

The investigation came after more than 1 million homes and businesses were without electricity on Monday, most of those from planned “public safety power shut-offs” on an unprecedented scale.

The bulk of those shut-offs were implemented by Pacific Gas and Electric Co, a unit of PG&E Corp (N:), California’s largest investor-owned utility.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, citing some $30 billion in civil liability from major wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018, including last year’s Camp Fire which killed 85 people and incinerated most of the Northern California town of Paradise. That fire ranks as the state’s deadliest on record.

Responding to the latest windstorms over the weekend, PG&E turned off electricity to 970,000 homes and workplaces in 38 counties in northern and central California, encompassing millions of people across more than half of PG&E’s service area of 70,000 square miles.

That tally far surpassed the previous record planned outage of 730,000 customers during high winds two weeks ago.

On Monday evening as the latest winds began to subside, PG&E crews restored electricity to 325,000 customers, utility spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said. She said the company had some 6,000 technicians in the field patrolling power lines, making repairs and turning electricity back on.

Even as power was being gradually restored, PG&E said it was considering yet another round of power shut-offs due to more high winds forecast for later in the week.

The precautionary blackouts have drawn sharp criticism from the governor and state regulators as being too widespread and disruptive, as well as poorly managed and communicated to the public earlier this month.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has said PG&E is largely to blame for its own predicament, arguing that corporate greed and mismanagement kept the utility from upgrading its infrastructure while wildfire hazards have steadily worsened over the past decade.

He has warned that under new leadership of the Public Utilities Commission, PG&E and other utilities would be “held to account” for their lapses.

The agency’s statement on Monday said its enforcement division will ask commissioners in the next 30 days to open an investigation of the outages by PG&E and other companies.

New commission President Marybel Batjer plans to reevaluate the protocols for precautionary power shut-offs and consider how utilities can minimize future outages.

In response to the commission’s action, PG&E said, “We are constantly working to minimize the impact of these safety shut-offs while prioritizing public safety. The sole purpose of these power shut-offs is to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the communities that we serve.”

PG&E acknowledged last week that a major wildfire in Sonoma County wine country ignited near a damaged high-voltage transmission tower as the power line was still transmitting electricity.

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