Tag Archives: PGE

Contrasts of competence as California assesses power cuts and utility pole route management

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pge outages 9oct2019

California’s privately-owned electric utilities and their regulators have a long and difficult job ahead as they try to figure out what was good and what was bad about last week’s massive wildfire prevention power cuts. Their eventual conclusions will have a significant impact on how utility pole routes are managed in California, including possible new, and more costly, design standards, and budgets for maintenance and wildfire prevention. Those costs will ultimately be shared with telecommunications companies that also use those poles.

The only major private electric utility that appears to be squarely in the good column is San Diego Gas and Electric. They shut off power to 395 customers, had them restored by Friday afternoon and did not start any fires. An excellent article in the Los Angeles Times by James Rainey and Joseph Serna details the operational, grid design and maintenance decisions SDG&E has made, and successfully implement, over the past decade.

The contrast with Pacific Gas and Electric is stark…

San Francisco-based PG&E is struggling to catch up with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which has become California’s recognized leader in forecasting fire danger, tailoring narrow outages for the most endangered neighborhoods and communicating the emergencies with the public, a top state regulator said.

“Those have been three pillars of success for SDG&E, and they are currently sources of failure for PG&E,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director for safety policy at the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E took a much blunter approach, cutting power to 738,000 customers in 34 counties across northern and central California. A customer is reckoned as a home or business – at least two million people were affected. Two dozen or more transmission lines – major, high voltage lines that feed regional and local distribution grids – were shut down. Full service wasn’t restored until late Saturday.

Whether or not it was necessary to cut off so many customers is a question that will be debated for months, if not years. What’s not in doubt is that PG&E completely fumbled public communications and poisoned relationships with the public, as well as state regulators and elected officials. Both CPUC president Marybel Batjer and California governor Gavin Newsom excoriated PG&E’s management and performance, even while conceding the necessity of “public safety power shutoff events”. The PG&E website was largely useless, and in some cases completely unavailable, and much of the information that did get out was inaccurate.

On the other hand, PG&E has not been implicated in any of the (relatively) small wildfires that broke out during the days of high winds and low humidity. To that extent, PG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts were successful.

Southern California Edison might not be as lucky. Although SCE won qualified praise for planning and executing its wildfire prevention program last week, its equipment might have been the cause of a major fire that began on the northern edge of the City of Los Angeles, and had spread through nearly 8,000 acres as of last night. Eyewitnesses said the Saddleridge fire began at the base of an SCE transmission tower, on a line that was still electrified. The LA fire department is treating those reports as credible, but its arson investigators have not reached any conclusions about the cause.

SCE shut off power to 24,000 customers, and restored power to all but four last night.

Broadband deployment will be more rigorous and costly in California, following U.S. supreme court ruling

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Southern California Gas and Electric can’t pass on wildfire costs to ratepayers. The federal supreme court declined to hear SDG&E’s appeal of a California Public Utilities Commission decision that put some of the burden of a 2007 series of wildfires on company shareholders. California’s strict “inverse condemnation” law requires utilities to bear the full cost of any damage when their pole routes, or other equipment in the right of way, is even partially to blame. Monday’s decision lets that principle stand. As a result, electric utilities will spend more on pole route maintenance and be tougher on inspections and standards enforcement.

Some of those additional costs, and all of the added rigour, will land on telephone, cable and other broadband companies that occupy space on utility poles.

According to a Los Angeles Times article by Rob Nikolewski,

Investigations into the causes of the Witch, Guejito and Rice fires — three of the worst wildfires in a devastating firestorm that befell San Diego County in October 2007 — found they were sparked by SDG&E equipment that had not been properly maintained.

The three fires combined to kill two people, injure 40 firefighters and destroy 1,300 homes…

SDG&E spent $2.4 billion to resolve more than 2,000 lawsuits related to the 2007 wildfires, but it insisted the blazes were ignited by factors it could not control — including extreme Santa Ana winds, a lashing wire owned by Cox Communications that hit an SDG&E power line and a tree limb that fell onto an SDG&E line due to high winds.

Properly maintained or not, SDG&E’s equipment was in the chain of events that led to the Guejito fire. So was Cox’s line, but even though it was the trigger, the California Public Utilities Commission tagged SDG&E with responsibility: it should have known that the cable company’s line was too close to its electrical line. According to investigator’s measurements, the two lines were separated by a bit more than three feet, instead of the six feet required by CPUC rules.

Cox ended up reimbursing SDG&E for a relatively small fraction of the $2.4 billion in liability claims that were paid out as a result of the three fires. But that was between the two companies; as applied by the CPUC and courts, California’s law put the liability burden on SDG&E.

The same legal principles apply to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric, California’s other two major investor owned electric utilities. They’ve lagged behind SDG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts, and are now playing catch up. The result will be higher levels of maintenance work and more rigorous inspections of pole routes, among other things. The cost of all of that – time, effort and money – will eventually be shared with telecoms companies. Deploying and maintaining broadband infrastructure in California will only become more expensive.

PG&E pole attachment shot clock ready for another CPUC vote

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Fiber attachments 625

The do-over of a settlement resolving a utility pole attachment dispute between Pacific Gas and Electric and Crown Castle is queued up at the California Public Utilities Commission. The original settlement was drafted by administrative law judge Patricia Miles and approved in March. But commissioners reversed the decision due to procedural mistakes, and told Miles to fix those errors try again. She did, and the new draft is the same as the old one.

If approved, the imposed settlement gives PG&E forty five days to “provide a response” to a pole attachment request from Crown Castle. If there’s no response, Crown Castle can go ahead with its proposed work. “Response” is not defined, but typically it means a yes or no answer, including any specs for work that’s needed to make the pole ready for a new line to be attached. Whether PG&E’s lawyers go with the typical meaning or try to craft one of their own remains to be seen.

The draft also bakes in the rejection of Crown Castle’s original request to be allowed to buy attachment space on PG&E’s poles, rather than just lease it. PG&E’s practice is to either sell ownership of the entire communications zone – the segment of the pole that’s high enough off the ground and sufficiently beneath electric lines – or lease it by the foot. Typically (there’s that word again) AT&T or another incumbent telco buy the entire zone and manage it under private joint pole rules that are, in theory, friendlier to telecoms companies. Crown Castle wanted those privileges for its one-foot of pole space, but didn’t want the responsibility of managing the entire zone.

PG&E opposes the changes proposed by Miles. It doesn’t like the way it was handled – the dispute between the companies was fast tracked as an arbitration, rather than a typical, and lengthy, litigation – and it objects to what it characterises as special treatment given to Crown Castle.

Crown Castle generally endorsed Miles’ decision, albeit after making clear that they think they should have been given the right to buy space by the foot on poles, and after asking for one change – removal of a requirement that they provide two days notice to PG&E before doing work on poles.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed settlement at its meeting next week, but don’t be surprised if it gets bumped. PG&E and Crown Castle have one more round of comments to file, and if any of their arguments gain traction with Miles or commissioners, then new language would have to be drafted.

Fewer complaints, so far, as California utilities cut power to reduce wildfire risk

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Update: PG&E shut off power this morning, as previously announced. As of this evening, it had restored power in north Bay Area counties, and some of the affected Sierra foothill communities. SCE turned power back on for the Riverside County homes affected by Tuesday’s cuts. Public reaction to PG&E de-energisation moves remained as relatively muted as it did on Tuesday. The San Francisco Chronicle spoke to one upset Sonoma County supervisor, but on the whole there was very little NIMBY outrage.

Forecasts of high winds and hot temperatures this week led two of California’s major privately owned electric utilities to implement de-energisation plans that were drafted earlier this year. Californians’ acceptance of “public safety power shutoffs” as a necessary fire prevention tool appears to be growing, although we’ll find out today if residents of the more affluent communities of the north San Francisco Bay Area are as tolerant as people in the Sierra foothills.

PG&E announced that it is turning off power this morning to 48,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sonoma and Yuba. That follows cut offs in Butte, Nevada and Yuba counties for 24,000 customers that began Monday evening. Restoration of service to the first group was supposed to be completed yesterday evening. As of last night, Southern California Edison had turned off power for a few dozen customers in Riverside County, and put a 140,000 more across the Southland on notice.

San Diego Gas and Electric customers are not affected, so far.

People who live in Sierra foothill communities have more directly personal memories of the horrific fire that killed 86 people and largely destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County last year. So they might not be happy about losing power, but they did not seem to erupt in outrage as some Wine Country residents did last October. That’s progress.

The Sacramento Bee found one Butte County resident who was annoyed. She was interviewed at one of the “community resource centers” that PG&E set up, basically a big tent with air conditioning and plenty of outlets to charge phones. Judging by the video shot by Bee reporter Daniel Kim, few people were inconvenienced enough to make use of it.

That was the only kvetching that turned up in a Google news search as power was being restored yesterday afternoon, and only a relative handful of people took to Twitter to complain. PG&E is a particular punching bag on Twitter: the proactive power cuts didn’t add much to the vitriol that’s regularly directed at the company. But there’s a somewhat different group of people affected today. Stay tuned.

“Rate neutral framework”, whatever that is, promised as PG&E offers plan to pay wildfire costs and get out of bankruptcy

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

PG&E filed its plan for coming out of bankruptcy with the federal judge handling the case yesterday. The company proposes to give $8.4 billion to those harmed by wildfires over the past four years, both individual and public agencies, another $8.5 billion to insurance companies that have already paid out claims resulting from those fires, as well as a previously agreed $1 billion to a group of northern California public agencies.

In a press release, PG&E’s CEO, Bill Johnson, was quoted as saying the reorganisation plan is a “rate neutral framework”, but didn’t elaborate. Media outlets have interpreted it as meaning that wildfire settlement costs won’t be passed onto electric customers, but there’s potentially a lot of weasel in those few words. The press release also promised “participation in the state wildfire fund established by Assembly Bill 1054” and “satisfaction” of its requirements.

AB 1054 was passed by the legislature in July, and sets up a couple of funds – one paid for by utilities, the other directly by their customers – that will provide a way of financing wildfire liabilities for Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric, and for PG&E if it clears the bankruptcy process by next summer. Since the $2.50 monthly charge for the second fund is already tacked onto customers’ bills, keeping it presumably qualifies as “neutral”. There are other ways to pass on costs to customers, directly and indirectly, so don’t assume that northern California electricity costs won’t go up even further if the judge eventually accepts PG&E’s plan.

The proposal also says that PG&E will honor existing contracts with community choice aggregators, lean energy producers and employees, and pay back its debts to lenders.

Just ahead of the filing, the City and County of San Francisco sent PG&E a letter offering to buy its electric (but not gas) system for $2.5 billion. It’s a follow up to a municipal power plan floated earlier this year by San Francisco mayor London Breed. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, PG&E unsurprisingly responded that the offer wasn’t in “the best interests of our customers and stakeholders”.

CPUC orders a do-over on PG&E–Crown Castle pole dispute decision

by Steve Blum • , , ,

White road attachment

A California Public Utilities Commission decision giving Crown Castle the right to work on Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s utility poles without permission, including attaching cables if PG&E doesn’t respond to requests for permission within a set time limit, was reversed on Thursday. Commissioners voted unanimously to send it back to the administrative law judge (ALJ) that originally heard it.

That doesn’t mean the substance of the decision will change, though.

PG&E based its request for a do-over on procedural grounds, claiming the CPUC didn’t follow its own rules for posting a proposed decision and giving the public – including particularly PG&E – the right to offer comments before a vote. Commissioners agreed…

We find that we did not follow the public review and comment requirement on proposed decisions, set forth in [the California public utilities code] and our Rules of Practice and Procedure. We grant rehearing and refer the proceeding back to the [ALJ] in order to serve a new proposed decision on the parties and provide the required public review and comment period (or issue a ruling, if appropriate, reducing or waiving the comment period). PG&E may raise any relevant remaining legal issues in comments to the proposed decision.

The core of PG&E’s legal objections is that the ALJ’s arbitrated decision ignored decades of past commission decisions and ran contrary to established policy for fairly, and safely, regulating the relationship between electric companies that own utility poles and the telecoms companies that use them.

ALJ Patricia Miles isn’t obligated to make any changes to the decision itself, and there’s no reason to think she will. The likeliest next step is for her to repost it with any minor changes to dates and such that might be needed. Thirty days later, or when ever the next meeting after that is scheduled, commissioners can vote again. In between, PG&E will have a chance to ask for changes.

Wildfires burn in northern California, but proactive power cuts might have limited the damage

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Thomas fire 2018 utility lines 300

Pacific Gas and Electric did two rounds of proactive cuts over the weekend, in response to warnings of high fire danger due to weather conditions. It was no false alarm. Cal Fire’s online map shows more than a dozen wildfires in PG&E’s territory, including the Sand Fire in Yolo County that’s grown to at least 2,200 acres. There’s no basis to speculate why any of those fires began – that’s a question for later.

However, there is reason to suspect that it might have been worse if PG&E hadn’t cut off electricity to approximately 23,000 customers in Butte, Napa, Solano, Yolo (but not where the Sand Fire began) and Yuba counties. Before power could be turned back on, PG&E crews had to inspect 800 miles of lines and, according to a PG&E press release, they “found instances of damage to de-energized equipment caused by the extreme weather event”.

Cal Fire pins Camp Fire blame on PG&E, but won’t release investigation details yet

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Camp fire landsat

PG&E equipment started the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County last year, but the details of how and, perhaps, why are still under wraps. On Wednesday, Cal Fire announced that its investigation found that PG&E started two fires near the town of Paradise on 8 November 2018…

CAL FIRE has determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area.

The fire started in the early morning hours near the community of Pulga in Butte County. The tinder dry vegetation and Red Flag conditions consisting of strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures promoted this fire and caused extreme rates of spread, rapidly burning into Pulga to the east and west into Concow, Paradise, Magalia and the outskirts of east Chico.

The investigation identified a second ignition sight near the intersection of Concow Rd. and Rim Rd. The cause of the second fire was determined to be vegetation into electrical distribution lines owned and operated by PG&E.

That conclusion is backed by a full report, but consistent with past practice it’s been forwarded to the Butte County district attorney’s office for use in the ongoing criminal investigation into the blaze.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cal Fire thinks PG&E broke the law. Butte County DA Michael Ramsey started his own criminal investigation last November, and the full report was sent to him. According to a Bay City News Service story, he won’t release it “until a final decision is made on whether to file criminal charges”.

Cal Fire’s conclusion comes as no surprise to PG&E, which has been working under the assumption that it will be held responsible for the Camp Fire, given the way California utility liability laws work. Even if PG&E (or any other electric or telecoms company that uses utility pole routes) did everything it was supposed to do, if its equipment started the fire, it has to pay the full damages.

San Francisco considers taking over PG&E’s electric business

Sfpuc pge report graphic 13may2019

The City and County of San Francisco is a small step closer to taking over the electric half of Pacific Gas and Electric’s utility operations. A report produced by the City’s local public utilities commission, at the request of mayor London Breed, airs many grievances with PG&E, extolls the benefits of a municipally owned electric utility and glosses over the hard questions of how and how much.

San Francisco’s options, according to the report, range from continuing to arm wrestle with PG&E, to building some limited extensions of existing city-owned electric distribution lines, to simply taking over PG&E assets and operations…

The City can completely remove its reliance on PG&E for local electricity services through purchasing PG&E’s electric delivery assets and maintenance inventories in and near San Francisco, and operating them as a public, not for profit service. The City will pay PG&E a fair price for the assets that reflects asset condition. In this option, the City will also offer jobs to PG&E’s union and other employees who currently operate the grid.

This option would also involve bundling in the City’s limited municipal electric system and customers from the City’s community choice aggregator, one of many such county and regional-level agencies created in California to serve as a middle man between investor-owned utilities, such as PG&E, and electric customers.

The three biggest questions – how to convince PG&E to sell, how much would it cost and how would it be paid for – are left hanging. Presumably, the federal bankruptcy judge in charge of PG&E’s restructuring will have something to say about it all. The price of a buyout is described as “dependent on fair market value analysis; could be a few billion dollars initially”. The report is even more opaque about what happens after “initially”.

The money “would be revenue bond‐funded by the SFPUC using its borrowing authority”. That means that the City would repay bond obligations with the revenue collected from electric customers, after it pays its own expenses. The report estimates that gross revenue would be in the $500 million to $750 million range, but doesn’t try to figure out how much of that would be available to pay back the “few billion dollars” it would have to borrow.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of revenue bonds: those that are backed by taxpayer money and those that aren’t. If the former, any shortfall in revenue (or cost overruns) would come out of the City’s budget. If the latter, the bondholders could, ultimately, be stiffed. Which might seem like a fine thing to some, except that the greater risk is offset by higher interest rates on the money that’s borrowed, which in turn will be paid by electric customers through higher rates. Although it would technically be a not-for-profit business, it would have to generate a sufficient surplus – a profit in everything but name – to make those payments.

This is the second time in as many years that the City and County of San Francisco has looked at operating a major utility. Last year, the City floated a proposal to build and operate a citywide fiber to the premise broadband system, that would have cost a couple of billion dollars. That project was shelved shortly after Breed won the mayor’s job in a special election.

Electric utilities will decide when to cut power in the face of fire threats

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Californian electric utilities will have clearer guidance on how, if not when, to shut down – de-energise – local power lines when the danger of sparking a wildfire is at its peak. That’s assuming a decision drafted by California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Picker is approved later this month. It’s not the full and final instruction manual, but it’s a start. The new procedures will be in place for this year’s wildfire season and can be improved as time goes on.

As currently written, the CPUC wouldn’t give public safety agencies veto power over de-energisation decisions. They can ask for a delay, but “the electric…utilities retain ultimate authority to grant a delay and responsibility to determine how a delay in de-energisation impacts public safety”.

One question left for later is how, exactly, electric utilities will decide whether to cut off power to “transmission lines”. Those are the high voltage lines that are typically strung on tall, steel towers that march across the landscape. Shutting off a transmission line – as opposed to, say, a neighborhood “distribution line” – could impact hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. For now, electric utilities have the authority to shut down transmission lines as they see fit. That’s a good thing – last year’s deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 86 people, was apparently sparked by a transmission line.

That aside, most of the draft decision focuses on communication, with the public and with public safety agencies. Electric companies would have to create clear, 24/7 lines of communications with public safety agencies and anyone who operates “critical facilities and infrastructure”, which includes broadband and phone systems.

Electric customers “should understand the purpose of proactive de-energisation, the electric..utilities’ process for initiating it, and the impacts if deployed”. The burden of making sure that happens would be placed on electric utilities, who would have to “reach customers no matter where the customer is located and deliver messaging in an understandable manner”.

Particular attention would be paid to “vulnerable populations”, which includes disabled people, children, the elderly, low income people and pregnant women. Whether reckoned vulnerable or not, everyone “within the boundaries of a de-energised area (and potentially adjacent jurisdictions)” would have to notified in advance. Responsibility for that would be split between the utilities and local governments. Public safety agencies – state and local – would get “priority notification” ahead of a proactive power cut.

Notification would, if possible, begin 72 hours before de-energisation happens. That would be a heads up warning, based on current and forecasted conditions.

Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison put out those kinds of alerts last fall, but didn’t actually shut off electric lines until the fires began and people started to die. San Diego Gas and Electric, though, followed through on its warnings and turned off power to tens of thousands of customers: no fires, no deaths.