The third time was the charm for the twice defeated planned blackout bill SB 378 as it passed the Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee after rejections in March and September of 2019.
$250,000 per hour fines
Under SB 378, utility companies can now be fined at least $250,000 per hour for every 50,000 customers who lost power in a planned blackout. For the fine to take place, the planned blackout would have to be “unreasonable or preventable.” Fine payments would also solely come from company shareholders and not consumers.
The bill would also set up a system for consumers and customers to recover financial losses caused by blackouts, would force large companies with over 2.5 million electrical connections to file annual reports on the conditions of their equipment, and would have a commission give a biennial report on the “economic, environmental, public health, and public safety impacts of deenergization events.”
Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) wrote the bill last year in response to PG&E starting shutdowns to prevent wildfires. It was rejected twice before PG&E began implementing widespread planned blackouts due to the wildfire season and not wanting to pay anymore large fines and settlements like it did over the deadly PG&E caused Camp Fire in 2018. The widespread outrage over the blackouts proved to be enough to bring the bill back for the next session.
Support for SB 378
Large numbers of affected citizens, especially those who are at risk during blackout, joined cities such as San Jose and Oakland and other regionally affected area representatives in support of the bill.
“Other than through political pressure, the utility does not have to pay any attention to the costs and harms inflicted on people,” said Sen. Wiener. “This is about life and death in a lot of situations.”
Last year Wiener also said that “These blackouts can have devastating impacts on vulnerable seniors, people with health problems, businesses, and public safety agencies. This legislation is about striking the right balance to ensure utilities don’t overlook the negative impacts to residents, businesses, and communities.”
The bill did have notable opponents though, namely energy company representatives and utility workers who testified that the number of wildfires were reduced last year thanks to the preemptive blackouts.
Skepticism over the bill
Some Senators remained skeptical of the bill and it’s parameters.
Former Southern California Edison public affairs executive and current Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) pointed out the Assembly and Senate are partially responsible for utility companies turning to blackouts after increased consequences for starting wildfires. He also warned that, even though the bill says that shareholders would foot any future bill, that customers may still have to pay for any future wildfires.
“They’ll be passed on to ratepayers no matter how we frame it,” explained Senator Bradford. “We’re setting the table up for another energy crisis in the state of California.”
Despite other Senators issuing similar concerns the bill passed 10-1 to move on to another Senate Committee vote later this session. It was largely approved because of amendments added by Senator Wiener, which including cutting down the hourly fine in half from $500,000 per 20,000 customers to $250,000.
SB 378 will have until January 31st to reach a Senate vote or else it will miss the session deadline and ultimately be stopped from proceeding further.