The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted on Wednesday to launch an official investigation into the public safety power shutoffs that left more than 2.6 million Californians without power in October as wildfires tore across the state.
Heeding Gov. Gavin Newsom's call to reform power shutoff rules, the regulatory agency framed the investigation as both an essential accountability tool and a way to study how to better handle high-risk weather in the future.
“These sustained PSPS events cannot be the new normal for California,” commission President Marybel Batjer said when introducing the measure. “It is imperative that we do more to mitigate wildfire risk and reduce the use of PSPS in the future.”
The commission authorizes utilities to de-energize during strong winds or high heat to protect the public and prevent fires from igniting from power lines during high-risk weather.
Between Oct. 5 and Nov. 1 of this year, 12 shutoff events occurred, thrusting huge swaths of the state into prolonged power outages.
The most recent public safety shutoff by Pacific, Gas, & Electric lasted roughly 58 hours and affected more than 515,000 homes and businesses — more than 800,000 people.
While much of the anger over the shutoffs was focused on PG&E, the bankrupt utility responsible for the lines that sparked the devastating Camp Fire last year, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric also turned off power to thousands of customers for extended periods of time during the October fires.
The commission's Safety and Enforcement Division will be responsible for launching the investigation and will evaluate the utilities' actions during each phase of the public safety power shut-off events. The commission will specifically look into whether de-energization rules were followed, in addition to evaluating whether the rules already in existence go far enough to protect the public.
All California utility companies will have to report to the division on their actions, both internal and external, by Dec. 13.
Regardless of the investigation findings, actions have already been taken to sanction PG&E for its shortcomings in collaborating with local governments, communicating coherently with customers, and rolling out the blackouts in a way that may have put the public at greater risk.
During the power outages, the company's website was down, local agencies were not given enough time to prepare, and a strategy intended to be surgical was implemented across counties for days at a time.
PG&E's CEO Bill Johnson admitted that the utility was "not adequately prepared" in a press conference last month.
Newsom rebuked the bankrupt utility during a press conference set against the backdrop of widespread blackouts saying “greed” and “mismanagement” led to the outages. Calling PG&E “a corpus” he also questioned whether the energy company, which services roughly 16 million people, was too large.
“We are seeing the scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century should experience,” Newsom told reporters gathered at the California Office of Emergency Services Control Center, just outside Sacramento. Calling the situation unacceptable, he said it was “not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades.”
The governor signed dozens of bills this year that tighten protocols, including Assembly Bill 1054, which passed in July, and was intended to force PG&E to upgrade its infrastructure and limit the need for public safety power shutoff events.
Early next year, work will begin on Senate Bill 378, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, which would require the CPUC to draft a process for cost recovery for planned blackouts, and ensure utility shareholders cover the costs rather than ratepayers.
“The recent mass blackouts in the Bay Area show exactly that we need legislation to protect residents,” Sen. Wiener said in a statement. “Utilities now have a strong financial incentive to err on the side of blackouts — even when they aren’t necessary — and very little incentive to avoid large blackouts.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California launches probe into public safety power shutoffs by PG&E, others