Board directs staff to find funding to prepare for power emergencies

Diane Sieker photo

Riverside County supervisors directed the Department of Emergency Management and other agencies to seek state funding and take other steps to mitigate the impacts of future “public safety power shut-offs,” during its Aug. 27 meeting.

Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Manuel Perez introduced a proposal July 23, declaring the county’s intention to obtain reimbursement for costs incurred providing temporary shelter to residents who find themselves in the dark because an electrical provider deactivated circuits to prevent arcing or sparks in the event transmission lines fail during Santa Ana winds or extreme heat.

Hewitt and Perez argued that the county should be entitled to funds from the state and other entities whenever public safety power shut-offs, also known as “de-energization,” occur and the county is saddled with costs as a result.

The supervisors’ original proposal, however, implied that investor-owned utilities might engage in shut-offs on a regular basis to limit their liability exposure risks.

Southern California Edison spokesman Jeremy Goldman responded during the July meeting that the utility had made considerable progress inspecting power lines, replacing aging equipment and eliminating overgrown vegetation to slash fire risks.

Goldman further pointed out that the supervisors appeared to be confused about the scope of the California Public Utilities Commission’s rulings on de-energization, and the fact that the practice is not mandatory.

Hewitt and Perez revised their proposal over the ensuing weeks, putting emphasis on the need for funding from the governor’s Office of Emergency Services to help the county prepare for shut-offs. The newly approved board directive also tasks the county’s lobbyists with approaching the governor and lawmakers with requests to find legislative fixes that would enable counties to more easily apply for state aid in the event of intentional outages.

The CPUC issued a ruling in May in response to Senate Bill 901, written by Sen. William Dodd, D-San Francisco, and signed into law in September, which requires investor-owned utilities to expedite the creation of protocols for when and how to implement shut-offs.

Southern California Edison has already exercised a shut-off to mitigate fire hazards, which occurred in December 2017, impacting the mountain communities of Idyllwild and Pine Cove, where just over 8,000 Edison customers lost electricity for hours during a red flag event. It is unclear how many customers received advance notice of the outage. The CPUC wants utilities to give at least two hours warning to impacted parties.

According to Goldman, customers are receiving alerts several days in advance of a potential de-energization.

Along with SCE, Pacific Gas and Electric, now under bankruptcy protection, and San Diego Gas and Electric are contending with a raft of regulations added to the Public Utilities Code as a result of SB 901.

The bill mandates penalties up to $100,000 for each violation of any CPUC decree, decision or rule. An electrical corporation is specifically prohibited from recovering its penalty costs by passing them on to customers.

The legislation was largely a response to multiple destructive wildfires in the autumns of 2017 and 2018. Among the worst was the Thomas Fire, which destroyed more than 280,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017, as well as the Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest wildfire in state history, which consumed more than 150,000 acres, killed nearly 100 people and decimated the town of Paradise in November.

Downed PG&E lines have been blamed for igniting that blaze.