PG&E ‘failed on so many levels’ in executing mass power shutoff, CPUC tells utility execs

Utility Dive: October 21, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • California regulators demanded executives of Pacific Gas & Electric take responsibility for the state’s largest-ever Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) and commit to widespread improvements to the program during an emergency meeting on Friday.
  • The multi-day blackout ran Oct. 9 to Oct. 13 and impacted up to 2 million people. PG&E faced criticism for poor communication and coordination, as well as for delays in requesting assistance for inspections and recovery.
  • Utility officials said the communication and coordination issues are being addressed but cautioned shutoff events are likely to remain necessary for up to a decade as California utilities attempt to mitigate electric system-caused wildfires during high winds and dry conditions.

Dive Insight:

Utility and commission officials agreed on one thing at the Friday meeting: Climate change has put California at greater fire risk, and an overhaul of PG&E’s system will take years.

“California will become more resilient, but more resiliency will not and should never translate to Californians being willing to put up with inadequate execution of measures that are supposed to keep them safe,” California Public Utilities Commissioner (CPUC) President Marybel Batjer said at the meeting. “You guys have failed on so many levels, on pretty simple stuff.”

“What we saw play out by PG&E last week cannot be repeated,” Batjer continued. “The specific goal of this meeting is to make sure any future power shutoff event is never like the one last week.”

But the utility largely stood by its decision to trigger the PSPS, despite acknowledging some system flaws.

“We’ve made this decision a handful of times in the past couple of years, and unfortunately we will likely need to continue doing so in the near-term for the sake of public safety,” utility CEO Andrew Vesey told regulators. “So, we need to keep get better at doing it. We need to make it as minimally disruptive as possible by making it more targeted and restoring power more quickly.”

“We operate an electric system in a growing tinderbox,” he added.

A utility with little credibility 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, on Monday called for the utility to offer $100 rebates to residential customers and $250 to small businesses and directed the CPUC to launch an investigation.

“The impacts to lives, businesses and the economy, cannot be overstated,” Batjer said.

Utility officials told regulators they understand the impacts and use the PSPS as a last resort, defending their judgment in activating the program.

“The decision achieved its essential purpose, but also suffered from significant shortcomings in execution,” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson told the commissioners. “It’s hard to prove a negative. We can’t prove our decision avoided wildfires that otherwise would have occurred. But we do know this: Winds above 45 mph create a high risk of vegetation contacting distribution lines.”

Friday’s meeting landed just before the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs fire that killed 22 people, and the one-year anniversary of the Camp fire, which killed 86 and destroyed 18,000 structures.

PG&E declared bankruptcy in January, facing billions in liabilities related to the wildfires. It is the utility’s second bankruptcy, and Johnson acknowledged the company’s troubled past which includes a deadly gas pipeline explosion in 2010.

“Perhaps because of the history of significant events at this company, I have heard and read a lot of skepticism about our actions,” Johnson told regulators. “The reputation and condition of this company has been adversely affected by situations in the past where it did not keep people safe. And in this instance, we were doing our best to do just the opposite.”

Johnson also noted that PG&E’s system is actually “in pretty good shape” in fire-prone areas, judging by its recent system reviews. But improvements are being made, not just to the grid but to communications and procedures related to the PSPS.

Near-term improvements include scaling up web site capabilities, call center staffing and emergency response plans, while the utility also works to harden its system. In a filing with regulators last week, the utility said it has:

  • Moved specific features of its website to the cloud so that it “can scale up and down, as needed,” during an emergency event;
  • Developed a plan to provide a liaison to all jurisdictions impacted by a PSPS;
  • Established a process to create outage maps and data products;
  • Developed restoration status reports that are regularly communicated to county agencies;
  • Created an internal tool to assist in estimating the time of restoration following a PSPS.

A 10-year problem 

Many see distributed resources as the solution to PG&E’s woes, but it could take a decade to build out sufficient capabilities.

In the meantime, Johnson told regulators that “sectionalizing” equipment, particularly on sub-transmission lines, would allow the utility to remove smaller sections of line from power. Using different materials to coat power lines and increased vegetation management can also help.

“We definitely need to move toward some sort of microgrid sectionalization,” he said. “Eventually the technology will get us to a place where we don’t need to be doing this,” he said. But pressed by commissioners to give a timeline for reducing the scope of PSPS, Johnson illustrated the scale of the issue.

“Better every year,” he said. “I think this is probably a 10-year timeline to get to a point where this is ratcheted down significantly.”