Wildfire Hearing

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo, at left), chair of a subcommittee of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park, speaking) and other lawmakers discuss public-safety power shut-off programs. 

California communities are contemplating the implications of extended public-safety power shut-offs, with elected officials saying they are hearing widespread apprehension from their constituents over the impacts of the planned outages.

At an Aug. 14 hearing in Sacramento, lawmakers expressed displeasure with communication and other judgment calls by utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, the northern California utility with the state's largest and oldest electric grid. Officials from state regulatory and emergency response agencies, grid operators and others also spoke at the hearing.

Lawmakers listed a broad slate of concerns about the effects of PSPS on their communities, including vulnerable populations, traffic systems, businesses, emergency responders, communications infrastructure and other aspects of everyday life.

"I think we are collectively just realizing how important this issue is," Elizaveta Malashenko, a deputy executive director with the California Public Utilities Commission's Safety and Enforcement Decision, said. She noted there haven't been many shut-offs yet this fire season, but there have been lots of notices, which have their own impact.

The shut-offs have many implications in California, a state that is moving rapidly to electrify its transportation sector, convert large facilities to electric power, decarbonize its buildings, and undertake other initiatives to move away from fossil fuels.

Lawmakers at the hearing expressed worry about consequences in their districts, not just from outages, but even just from the notices—such as a school that canceled classes only to have the power remain on. Many businesses aren't covered by insurance when the power goes out, threatening their financial health, and emergency response systems are likely to be flooded with calls in the wake of outages.

"We are continuing to work very closely on these issues that are coming up," Malashenko said, adding, "I think the situation we have right now is not acceptable and not sustainable."

Malashenko said the CPUC is continuing to learn about how decisions to cut off power will be made, including in discussions with utilities after the fact. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) at the hearing said he is worried that utilities will err on the side of shutting off power to avoid fires and liability, and that the guidelines under which they will shut off power are too loose. But Malashenko said the CPUC doesn't have enough information yet to create stricter guidelines for shut-offs. She said the focus should be on making communities resilient to outages, and "making sure we are solving for the root problem of resilience in our communities."

"The costs of these power shut-offs are massive," Wiener said. He charged that PG&E had failed to adequately maintain its system. When power is shut off, "there has to be a financial consequence on the other side as well—it's not fair to ratepayers, it's not fair to businesses," Wiener said.

"It's not enough to say: 'Have a go-bag and good luck, here's directions to a cooling center,'" Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) said.

Of chief concern are vulnerable customers such as the sick and elderly. The customers classified as vulnerable or "medical baseline" number about 195,000 in PG&E territory alone. And these utility customers classified as medical baseline have opted into a rate program—not a special emergency response program—at PG&E, so that distinction likely covers only a portion of vulnerable customers, according to Sumeet Singh, vice president for PG&E's Community Wildfire Safety Program. The actual total number of vulnerable customers is unknown, he said.

The utility has held more than 750 meetings with local officials, groups, governments and service providers, held planning workshops, and installed 400 weather stations, according to Singh. The utility has more than 30,000 miles of overhead lines, more than the distance around the globe.

"This work is continuing, and there is more that we know needs to be done," Singh said. "We are very mindful that a PSPS has a significant impact from a public-safety standpoint as well."

The Governor's Office of Emergency Services has been working closely with utilities to learn more about the shut-offs, according to Caroline Thomas-Jacobs, chief of headquarters operations for OES. The agency "immediately recognized the potential significant impact of these longer outages," she said, noting that the 911 response system is likely to be overwhelmed in the wake of an outage.

"All of these impacts could lead to potential cascading emergencies out of the decision to power down," Thomas-Jacobs said.

City of San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said he foresees emergency responders overwhelmed with 911 calls after a shut-off, and expressed concern that cell towers could shut down. The shut-offs are "a statewide issue," he said, and "put life-or-death decisions in the hands of investor-owned utilities." He added that he has no idea if the PG&E employee making the decision to shut off power has any engineering or emergency services background.

PSPS concerns led the City of Chico to consider a curfew on its 112,000 residents that would limit their ability to travel, prohibit occupation of public property, and impose other restrictions that would bring normal life to a complete halt during outages. According to local press coverage, all 20 speakers at a recent public hearing in Chico spoke against the proposal.

That little public hearing in a small California city might provide a microcosm of how the wider public will react when the electricity customers who have funded the system find themselves in the dark, in more ways than one.