SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The California Public Utilities Commission announced Wednesday it will launch an investigation into all aspects of Pacific Gas & Electric’s policy to turn off electricity to homes and businesses as a way to prevent wildfires.
The five-member commission voted unanimously to investigate the de/reenergized process and determine if any laws or regulations were violated.
“It is important for the PUC to determine if the utilities complied with using Public Safety Power Shutoffs as a last resort,” Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma said.
Millions of customers from the Bay Area to the Sierra had their electricity turned off for as long as five days during four Public Safety Power Shutoffs in the month of October as high winds and bone-dry humidity levels triggered Red Flag Warning wildfire conditions.
The outages prompted outrage among customers and community leaders who were critical of the way the massive utility informed the public of their plans.
Schools were closed, traffic accidents took place at intersections with signal lights that no longer worked and business owners absorbed the loss of revenue from being forced to shutter their operations.
People scrambled to charge their cellphones and electric vehicles, to find gasoline and cash, to stay warm and to keep their food from spoiling. They donned headlamps at home and parked their cars outside inoperable automatic garage doors.
Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum told the commission Wednesday that her rural community had no working phones or internet. She wants local control over the power grid, which she said could take better care than the for-profit utility.
“Basically, we were sent back into the dark ages,” she said. “We lost our electricity, our cell phones, could not get a code red whatsoever. Could not make a call out or text out.”
Mayor Senum was just one of the elected officials at today’s meeting.
“What brought me here is to make sure that there is a face to what’s going on to our local people here on the ground in Northern California,” explained Lake County Supervisor Moke Simon.
While Simon and others applauded the unanimous vote to launch an investigation, they say the real need something in the way of a long-term solution.
“We want to make sure that we let them know that just because the lights are on now we know there’s a problem and we need to continue to work on a solution,” Simon said after the vote.
The outages raised concerns about whether the utilities “properly balanced the need to provide reliable service with public safety and were properly planned and executed,” said the order authorizing the investigation.
CPUC President Marybel Batjer requested the investigation, saying that widespread outages “cannot be the new normal for California.”
In a statement, PG&E says it welcomes any feedback on how to improve safety, and the shutoff procedures. The results of the investigation are supposed to be delivered by the second week of January.
While the policy was designed to prevent wildfires, PG&E equipment failures has been cited as the cause of the massive Kincade Fire, which burned 77,758 acres in Sonoma County, destroying 174 homes, and at least three smaller Bay Area wildfires.
In the wake of the public outcry, PG&E announced it would provide rebate credits to customers affected by the October 9 power safety shutoff. Residential customers will receive a $100 bill credit, and commercial customers will receive a $250 bill credit.
The one-time rebate will be given to the roughly 738,000 customers affected by just the October 9 shutoff, although the utility is “open to having a policy discussion with state regulators and others” about rebates for subsequent outages.
PG&E is currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection — an action the utility was force to take after it faced an avalanche of multi-million-dollar damage suits filed in the wake of major wildfires triggered by downed power lines and other equipment failure dating back to 2017.
Wilson Walker contributed to this report.
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