The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced on Thursday that it will be fining Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) over a combined $22 million for violating Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) event public safety and notification requirements.
Public Safety Power Shutoff events, also known as planned blackouts and planned power outages, have been around in California for a long time. Events such as high winds can lead to downed power lines and damage to utility lines, causing sparks and small fires that can ignite dry foliage and become major forest fires, with the 2018 Camp Fire a well-known example. Following the Camp Fire, which caused over 80 deaths, led to $13.5 billion in settlements being paid out, and the bankruptcy and near-state takeover of PG&E, companies started being more cautious so as to avoid more wildfires, deaths, damage, and lawsuits caused by their equipment.
In 2019, the planned power outages wreaked havoc on millions of Californians, as the increased number of outages caused widespread logistical issues. Portable power generators were snapped up, affected residents had to drive to other areas just to make phone calls, and elderly and disabled residents were put at risk after being ordered to stay put, unable to contact friends and family. This happened because there was not enough warning ahead of the fires.
Following the 2019 fiasco, Governor Gavin Newsom got involved in the matter. The state and utility companies came together to hash out new rules and regulations concerning PSPS events, such as alerting residents well in advance of blackouts and stating exactly where these blackouts will be. A new enforcement policy over PSPS events finally came out in November 2020.
However, despite trying to cut power restoration times in half, and giving better early warnings to residents, problems persisted in 2020 and 2021. With outages becoming the new normal for many Californians during wildfire season, and the well-being of millions at risk, the CPUC finally acted upon violations from all 26 PSPS events that happened in 2020 on Thursday. This marked the first time that corrective actions and fines coming from the new enforcement policy were enacted.
Over $22 million in fines
According to the CPUC press release, PG&E is to pay $12 million in fines, with SCE paying $10 million and SDG&E paying a much lower $24,000. In addition to the fines, the companies are to also receive corrective actions from CPUC to make sure that the violations don’t happen again in the future.
“The 2020 PSPS season consisted of 26 separate PSPS events across the service areas of all four utilities,” the CPUC said on Thursday. “The CPUC’s safety and enforcement division conducts analysis of utility PSPS events to ensure utilities are complying with CPUC guidelines.”
“The safety and enforcement division’s analysis of the 2020 PSPS events uncovered multiple violations of CPUC PSPS guidelines. The administrative enforcement orders issued today address these violations through fines and corrective actions.”
“The proposed Administrative Enforcement Orders are issued under the CPUC’s Enforcement Policy, which was adopted in November 2020 to better serve Californians through expeditious and efficient enforcement actions that can be taken by CPUC staff. Today’s action marks the first time the CPUC has used an Administrative Enforcement Order. Under the Administrative Enforcement Orders, the utilities have 30 days to pay the fine to the State’s General Fund and make the corrective actions, or request a hearing.”
The utility companies responded to the violation fines on Thursday. While some accepted them, SCE called them “excessive” and “unnecessary.”
“The rules governing PSPS were still evolving, and the company has made significant improvements and progress since those PSPS events. Rather than focusing on our challenges and opportunities ahead, the AEO seeks to impose an unfair penalty and overlooks completely the improvements made in the last year and a half,” an SCE spokesman said. “We understand that PSPS events create hardships for our customers and have heard a clear message from customers, regulators, government officials and public safety partners that the company must do more to reduce the need for PSPS and provide increased support to customers and improve our outreach when PSPS events do occur.”
Many experts have noted that despite the advances made by the companies, fines are likely to continue in some capacity due to the increasing number of wildfires necessitating more shutdowns.
“The companies are really doing a great job at restoring power quicker and taking fewer people out of potential PSPS areas,” explained Carson Douglas, a utility line consultant, to the Globe on Friday. “But as the number of events go up, so does the risk of violations coming up. As good as the companies are doing, which will get even better now that they don’t want to be fined millions again, violations will likely still occur as the companies adjust to these new regulations, and in the future, any new regulations that come up.”
The over $22 million in fines will be paid directly to the state and will go the California’s general fund.