State Commission Will Look Into SCE’s Power Shut-Offs

Next Wednesday, Nov. 14, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will meet in San Francisco for a conference about SB 901, a bill signed into California law on Sept. 21—one that could have major impacts in Malibu, as wildfire seasons continue to worsen.

“Senate Bill 901 requires electric utilities to prepare and submit wildfire mitigation plans that describe the utilities’ plans to prevent, combat and respond to wildfires affecting their service territories,” according to information published on the commission’s website. “Through a proceeding it opened on Oct. 25, 2018, the CPUC will review the initial plans, and develop and refine the content of and process for review and implementation of wildfire mitigation plans to be filed in future years.”

The new law makes these plans mandatory—and in exchange, utilities in compliance would not have to face billion-dollar lawsuits should fires occur involving a utility. 

“Downed power lines have sparked devastating fires across the state in previous years,” explained a story recently published in the LA Times. “Two of the state’s largest electricity providers—Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric—both face steep costs related to past wildfires. PG&E has yet to finish tallying the damages it must pay from fires in Napa and Sonoma counties last fall. SB 901 … enhances the wildfire-mitigation plans that companies must file with the California Public Utilities Commission. Utilities will have to provide new details on vegetation removal and electricity shut-off plans. Regulators will have to formally sign off on the wildfire-mitigation plans, ensuring more accountability in the aftermath of a devastating blaze.” In exchange for filing—and complying with—those plans, the utilities will be protected from potentially devastating lawsuits and liability in the face of higher fire risk.

Many Malibu residents—as well as city officials—are concerned the mitigation plans include unilateral, intentional blackouts, which Southern California Edison (SCE) calls “public safety power shut-offs.” Those concerned fear the policy could create dangerous conditions for residents left suddenly without any means of communication during hazardous weather conditions—including fires. 

Zuma Beach FM—the parent of KBUU News—submitted comments to the commission before the start of the conference, referring to a series of blackouts that occurred in Malibu in October. KBUU General Manager Hans Laetz, who said he plans to attend the proceedings in San Francisco next week, did not mince words in his comments submitted to the CPUC.

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“The Los Angeles-area windstorms of Oct. 14-16 saw Southern California Edison flying by the seat of its pants, sowing chaos and confusion as it rapidly denied, then issued, then modified and finally withdrew blackout warnings due to wildfire danger, in a period of 24 hours,” Laetz wrote in a document shared with The Malibu Times. “Warnings of possible PSPS blackouts came with no advance notice, despite SCE having publicly committed to using its highly vaunted, new meteorological department that would give 48 hours notice before winds would arrive and make intentional blackouts necessary. In all, SCE officials issued four contradictory statements about possible PSPS intentional blackouts within 18 hours in Malibu. The SCE PSPS information was so contradictory that the City of Malibu put out a press release to refute Edison claims.”

Laetz is not the only one urging SCE to re-think its policy—earlier this fall, the City of Malibu also reached out to the company in an attempt to dissuade it from enacting the PSPS program. In a document published earlier this week, SCE and Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) responded to the city’s petition for modification.

“Malibu’s petition is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the resolution’s stated purpose and consequently seeks relief that is against the interests of the stakeholders Malibu purports to represent,” one section of the response states. 

The document, signed by representatives from both SCE and PG&E, states that a Malibu complaint over the policy simply “reflects poor policy.”

“The Joint Utilities are committed to working with stakeholders in their respective service areas that may be affected by a potential de-energization event. This includes Malibu, and other local governments and communities,” the document states. “The Joint Utilities respectfully oppose Malibu’s petition, however, because it fails to justify the sweeping relief being sought and itself reflects poor policy—especially given the state’s dramatically increasing wildfire risk and the serious threat involved. The Joint Utilities do not take the responsibility of de-energizing electrical facilities lightly, but recognize it may be required during severe fire conditions to protect the safety of their customers and communities.”

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