Tag Archives: SCE

SDG&E shuts off electricity in fire danger areas, possible SCE link to Woolsey blaze ignition

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Update, 13:48, 12 November 2018: SCE has begun proactive shutoffs, according to its website “due to dangerous high winds in Red Flag fire areas, SCE shut off power to roughly 50 customers in the Moorpark area at about 10:50 a.m. this morning”.

Much of California is under a red flag warning this morning. High winds and dangerously dry conditions could mean yet more wildfires, and more trouble for the three major fires already burning. The death toll from the Camp Fire in Butte County rose to 29 overnight, with hundreds of people still missing. At least two people died in the Woolsey Fire in Ventura and Los Angeles County. Both of those fires are largely uncontained, with high winds expected today and tomorrow.

So far, San Diego Gas and Electric is the only major Californian electric utility to begin large scale, proactive power cuts. It turned off electricity in and around eight communities in San Diego County last night and this morning, affecting ten thousand customers. Southern California Edison put dozens of communities on alert yesterday, but so far hasn’t reported turning off power proactively. PG&E hasn’t updated its proactive electric shut off notices since Friday.

A possible link between SCE and the start of the Woolsey fire surfaced yesterday. SCE filed a report with the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday night, stating that there was an interruption to a high voltage line near the start of the blaze, two minutes before the first report of a fire came in…

Preliminary information indicates the Woolsey Fire was reported at approximately 2:24 p.m. Our information reflects the Big Rock 16 kV circuit out of Chatsworth Substation relayed at 2:22 p.m. Our personnel have not accessed the area to assess our facilities in the vicinity of where the fire reportedly began. At this point we have no indication from fire agency personnel that SCE utility facilities may have been involved in the start of the fire.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that SCE’s incident caused the fire – it might have been the other way around – but it raises the possibility. Cal Fire lists the causes of the Camp, Woolsey and the (smaller and largely contained) Hill fires as “under investigation”.

Beyond the human tragedy, there’s no reliable damage estimate yet. All that’s certain is that it’ll be in the billions of dollars, if not tens or hundreds of billions, range. Under California law, utilities are on the hook for the full cost of the damage, even if the blame is shared with others. A bill passed in the final days of the California legislature’s session in August – senate bill 901 – allowed some of that cost to be passed on to electric customers, but that’s only a partial solution.

The cost of maintaining utility pole routes will climb, which will drive up costs for the telecommunications companies that share those routes. And if telecoms lines are involved in the start of a fire – a loose cable wrapping around electric lines was blamed in a 2007 San Diego County fire – then telephone, cable and other broadband companies would be similarly liable for the damage done.

Governor Jerry Brown said “this is the new abnormal” in a press conference yesterday. That applies as much to California’s telecoms future as it does to everything else connected to these fires.

Californians must choose between tragedy and inconvenience. It’s not hard

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Three massive wildfires continue to burn this morning in California; one in Butte County, two in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The cost in human life is immeasurable, with nine people confirmed dead in northern California and many more missing. There’s no way to gauge the damage to property and the disruption to lives: what is the price of a town burned to the ground?

The town is, or was, Paradise, a community of 26,000 people in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills. The Camp Fire disaster is a horrible shock, but it was no surprise. The fire danger was high in California, and local officials and utilities posted warnings.

Last Tuesday, two days before the Camp Fire began, Pacific Gas and Electric issued an alert in nine counties, including Butte, warning that it “may proactively turn off power for safety starting on Thursday, November 8”. By Wednesday night, eight counties remained on the list, with specific communities, including Paradise, called out.

No power was intentionally shut off that night.

Thursday morning at 6:15 a.m., PG&E “experienced an outage on the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission line in Butte County”, according to an incident report it filed with the California Public Utilities Commission. Eighteen minutes later, more than a dozen fire units were dispatched to the Poe Dam on the Feather River, where, according to radio transmissions reported by the Mercury News, a fire was quickly spreading…

“We’ve got eyes on the vegetation fire. It’s going to be very difficult to access, Camp Creek Road is nearly inaccessible,” one firefighter told dispatch. “It is on the west side of the river underneath the transmission lines.”

As firefighters rushed to Poe Dam early Thursday morning, each truck acknowledged over the radio, “Copy, power lines down,” as part of safety protocol for firefighters…

The first firefighter to reach the Poe Dam area Thursday morning quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation and called for an additional 15 engines, four bulldozers, two water tenders, four strike teams and hand crews.

“This has got the potential for a major incident,” he told dispatch, alerting them to evacuate Pulga, the town immediately southwest, and to find air support.

About six minutes later, another firefighter estimated the fire at about 10 acres with a “really good wind on it,” warning that once it left the “maintained vegetation under the power lines” the fire would reach a critical rate of spread when it hit the brush and timber.

On Thursday afternoon, PG&E cancelled its alert and said it didn’t cut power anywhere because “weather conditions did not warrant this safety measure”.

Southern California Edison likewise issued warnings on Tuesday and Wednesday, alerting customers to the possibility of proactive electricity shut offs. None were carried out before the two southern California fires began burning on Thursday.

There’s no indication yet of how the Woolsey and Hill fires started. And there’s no official statements at all regarding the cause of any of the blazes – it will be months before investigations are complete.

Beyond fighting the fires and caring for evacuees, the problem now is how to prevent, or at least reduce the possibility of, more wildfires. Weather conditions are in flux this weekend and the chance of severe winds, high temperatures and low humidity persists.

I’m not going to try to second guess PG&E’s and SCE’s decisions not to cut off power this week. This is new territory for everyone. I can only hope that however the decisions are made, the people making them ignore the self-centered objections and ignorant complaints that erupted from residents and businesses in high risk areas when PG&E proactively shut down power lines for the first time last month.

Yes, it’s inconvenient. Tell that to the survivors of Paradise.

Wildfire liability changes head into California law and onto your electric bill

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

It’s up to the California Public Utilities Commission now to decide whether your electric bill will include billions of dollars worth of damage done by wildfires. Governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 901 on Friday. Among other things, SB 901 allows privately owned electric utilities to raise prices to offset damage payouts due to fires that were, to one degree or another, their fault.

Utilities – electric and telecoms – have the right to plant and use poles along roads and waterways in California, with very few restrictions and no rental fees at all. The downside is that Californian law says that, in exchange, they face strict liability for any damage caused. Even if they’re only partly to blame, they pay the full tab.

With damage estimates from the past two years of monster wildfires climbing into the tens of billions of dollars range, and a growing pile of evidence linking electric lines to the blazes, fears of bankruptcy grew. One solution considered during legislative negotiations over the summer was to soften the strict liability doctrine and allow damages to be spread over any and all who might bear some of the blame for wildland disasters.

Those talks didn’t produce a result, so lawmakers went for Plan B: loosen regulations that restrict how electric utility damage payments are split between shareholders and customers, and let the CPUC decide who pays what. SB 901 was passed in the final hours of the legislative session, and now governor Brown has blessed it.

The deal doesn’t do much for telecoms companies. They set their own rates, without oversight by the CPUC. Telephone companies, particularly AT&T and Frontier Communications, will decide for themselves how to manage wildfire risks, to both their service lines and their bottom line. One solution, which doesn’t bode well for rural Californians, is to rip out copper infrastructure and replace it with low capacity wireless facilities. California lawmakers rejected an effort to streamline that process in 2016. It’s a reasonable bet to think it’ll be back on the table next year.

CPUC leaves SCE’s fiber business intact, but the beatings will continue

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

With barely a mention at its meeting, the California Public Utilities Commission closed the first chapter of a saga that should never have been written. By a unanimous vote, commissioners allowed Southern California Edison to withdraw its request for blanket approval of a dark fiber lease deal with Verizon.

SCE asked to pull the application because the deal was dead, the victim of a mauling by so called consumer advocates and a purblind proposed decision by CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen. Opponents objected, preferring instead that the commission press on and dismantle a revenue sharing deal, dating back two decades, that gave 10% of SCE’s fiber revenue to electric customers.

The fiber network was originally built to support its electric operations, but consistent with industry practice and common sense, SCE installed more fiber strands than it immediately needed – the cost of a cable with extra strands is diminishingly small. Construction accounts for almost all the expense.

Independent dark fiber is a valuable resource, particularly for competitive telecoms companies, and large corporate and institutional users, but also for incumbents like Verizon. It’s particularly precious in California, where most of the long haul fiber routes are controlled by old school, monopoly model telephone companies.

So SCE found a ready market for its 5,000 miles of fiber, threaded throughout the greater Los Angeles region. But success draws attention, in this case from groups that claim to speak for Californian consumers, but don’t seem to understand that those consumers need fast and, particularly, affordable broadband service, too. They convinced Rechtschaffen to propose taking half of SCE’s fiber revenue away, which would effectively kill the business. After paying operating costs – a fiber business does not run for free – SCE would have been either in the red or close enough to it that there would be little point to continuing.

After the case dragged on for more than a year, Verizon threw up its hands and cancelled the contract. SCE told the CPUC it was all moot, and on Thursday commissioners rejected opposing arguments and agreed. But the decision also contained a warning: the commission has electric company fiber in its crosshairs

The scope of the proceeding has raised broad policy issues that include identifying what policy frameworks promote the most effective utilization of ratepayer- funded dark fiber throughout California’s regulated electric utility infrastructure and assure safety, universal access to utility services, and non-discriminatory access to this infrastructure, especially amidst policy changes at the federal level. The Commission may consider opening a rulemaking to consider these and other broad policy issues and, in that broader context, reconsider the appropriate revenue sharing allocation for dark fiber route leases.

It’s not just about SCE. Apparently seeing the writing on the wall, PG&E also backed off a plan to become a fully certified telecoms company. Dark fiber sales is a minor sideline for both companies. Adding hugely disproportionate regulatory overhead will do nothing for electric rates and only serve to reduce competition and increase broadband prices for all consumers.

As California burns, governor decides whether legislature’s utility liability solution is good enough

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

A plan to reduce both the risk of catastrophic wildfires happening and the risk that such fires will bankrupt privately owned electric utilities is on California governor Jerry Brown’s desk. He has to decide if the deal reached by legislative leaders as the clock ran out on this year’s session is good enough.

Senate bill 901 would, among other things, allows the California Public Utilities Commission more flexibility in deciding whether liability costs can be passed on to electric customers. Under a principle in California law known as strict liability, if a utility is partially – even slightly – at fault, then it’s responsible for paying for the full cost of wildfire damage. The bill also includes measures to reduce woodland fuel loads and increase fire prevention efforts.

The original idea was to change the strict liability doctrine and figure out some way of spreading liability for wildfire damages amongst all those responsible. Despite nearly two months of negotiations the various sides – electric companies liked the idea, insurers didn’t, for example – couldn’t come to an agreement. So the legislative sausage machine ground out the current compromise that leaves it up to the CPUC to decide how the tab will be split between an electric company’s shareholders and ratepayers.

It’s also an issue for telecoms companies, particularly the incumbent telephone companies – large and small – that serve rural California. They also benefit from access to utility pole routes and bear the same kind of responsibility that goes along with it. The big difference is that the major incumbents – particularly AT&T and Frontier – are unregulated. It’s up to them to decide for themselves whether to cut dividends, raise rates or, in some circumstances, replace wireline infrastructure with wireless facilities, or walk away completely.

In this case, Brown has three viable options. He can accept the compromise and allow the bill to become law, or he can veto it and leave it to the next governor and legislature to solve, or he can veto it and call the legislature back into a special session, until they come up a solution that suits him. He has until the end of September to decide.

No deal on California wildfire liability

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Utility companies will still have to pay the full cost of wildfire damage in California, even if their infrastructure isn’t fully responsible for starting it. A July agreement to revise California’s utility liability law turned into a August stalemate, and the end of the legislative session is coming fast in Sacramento.

According to a story by CapRadio reporter Ben Adler (h/t to Scott Lay at Around the Capitol for the pointer), legislative leaders haven’t come to an agreement on how to change the state’s strict utility liability law, known as inverse condemnation…

“I think it’s safe to say that ‘inverse condemnation’ is off the table,” Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) told CapRadio Friday evening, referring to the state’s current liability law that the utilities have been fighting so hard to change. Dodd co-chairs the joint Senate-Assembly conference committee tasked with crafting wildfire preparedness and liability legislation.

Dodd’s declaration comes days after word began circling around the Capitol that lobbyists for the utilities had begun informing legislative staff and opposing lobbyists of the same thing.

Instead, Dodd says, there are “a number of other components” that lawmakers, the governor’s office, utilities and opponents of changing California’s wildfire liability law are “actively discussing.”

Pacific Gas and Electric, alone, faces a possible $12 billion tab for last year’s firestorms, and Southern California Edison is in a similar predicament. This year’s bill hasn’t even begun to be reckoned.

It’s a tough issue. Utility companies should be held accountable for their negligence and the damage that results. But under current California law, they also have to pay for everyone else’s mistakes and bad behavior. In this new era of megafires, the result might well be bankruptcy, and the disruption to utility infrastructure – electric and telecoms – that entails.

Governor Jerry Brown could call the legislature back in a special session in September. Wildfires, active and otherwise, have been a top priority for him, and for thousands of firefighters and emergency workers all summer. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for lawmakers to put in some overtime too.

CPUC won’t kill SCE’s dark fiber business. Yet

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Southern California Edison fought its dark fiber battle to a draw, but all out war looms on the horizon. That’s my reading of a proposed decision by a California Public Utilties Commission administrative law judge that would end SCE’s quest for approval of a bulk fiber lease deal with Verizon, if the commission votes to approve it next month.

SCE, like other electric utilities in California, installed fiber optic cables on its pole routes, initially to monitor and operate its infrastructure. But one cable has dozens of fiber strands, and over the past 20 years SCE has leased out some of that surplus capacity, under terms approved by the CPUC that require it to rebate 10% of the gross revenue generated to electric customers.

Usually, the CPUC reviews SCE’s fiber leases one by one. But last year, SCE asked permission to sign a master lease with Verizon, and then add individual fiber routes to it over time.

That rational and reasonable approach was first accepted, then rejected after rookie commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen stepped in. So-called consumer advocates, who don’t seem to understand that consumers need fast, affordable and competitive broadband service too, jumped in as well. The ultimate result was a proposed decision that would have split the gross revenue 50/50. SCE said that would kill its dark fiber business model – which is probably true – and that, in any event, the Verizon deal was dead because of the CPUC’s delays.

With the SCE decision looming, Pacific Gas and Electric also asked to cancel its request for CPUC permission to get into the telecoms business.

The proposed decision published yesterday would allow SCE to withdraw its application for approval of the now moot Verizon deal, but opens the door to a comprehensive, and potentially far more damaging, review of electric companies’ dark fiber leases…

The scope of the proceeding has raised broad policy issues that include identifying what policy frameworks promote the most effective utilization of ratepayer-funded dark fiber throughout California’s regulated electric utility infrastructure and assure safety, universal access to utility services, and non-discriminatory access to this infrastructure, especially amidst policy changes at the federal level. The Commission may consider opening a rulemaking to consider these and other broad policy issues and, in that broader context, reconsider the appropriate revenue sharing allocation for dark fiber route leases.

Electric companies are one of the few sources of independent dark fiber left in California. Killing their fiber business would harm consumers, both as electric customers, who would have no revenue to split at all, and as broadband customers, who pay high monopoly prices for low levels of service.

For now, we can only hope that “universal access to utility services” means all utilities, including broadband.

California legislature considers utility fire liability changes

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

The fires ravaging California this morning are a stark reminder that last year’s horrific blazes were no fluke. They are the new normal. Figuring out how to live with this reality is the most pressing task in front of the California legislature when it reconvenes later today.

One of the many issues is who pays?

Under California law, if the cause involves an electric utility’s infrastructure, then it has to pay for the full cost of the damage, whether it was fully, or even truly, at fault. And whether or not it was negligent. By one reckoning, Pacific Gas & Electric’s shareholders face a $12 billion tab from last year’s fires alone. Southern California Edison is in the same boat. It’s natural to want someone else to pay for any kind of damage suffered by the public, but there’s also the question of how to keep electricity flowing in California, at affordable rates and in a sustainable manner. Assessing the liability of electric companies as you would for any other business is one way to balance those interests.

Before they left for their summer vacation, key lawmakers agreed with governor Jerry Brown to fast track a solution. While they were gone, Brown released a draft of his preferred approach. According to the proposed bill’s summary…

In a civil action…against an electrical corporation or a local publicly owned electric utility seeking damages arising from an unintended fire that occurred on or after January 1, 2018, when electrical infrastructure is a substantial cause of the fire, this bill would require the court to balance the public benefit of the electrical infrastructure with the harm caused to private property and determine whether the utility acted reasonably.

Telecoms companies can be hit with the same kind of liability claims, as Cox Communications was for a 2007 fire in San Diego County. And they rely on pole routes that are largely built and maintained by electric companies. The top priority has to be the safety of all Californians, but maintaining affordable access to modern electric and telecoms service is important too.

Zero understanding of dark fiber business means zero benefit to Californian consumers

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Southern California Edison is driving home the point that rebating half of its dark fiber leasing revenue to electric customers would kill its ability to compete in the telecoms market. A draft decision by CPUC commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen would replace a nearly 20 year old gross revenue sharing formula – 90% to SCE, 10% to electric customers – with a 50/50 split.

In closed door meetings with top California Public Utilities Commission staff, an SCE executive and an in-house lobbyist said, in effect, that Rechtschaffen doesn’t understand the dark fiber business…

Contrary to unsupported statements in [Rechtschaffen’s draft decision], a 50/50 gross revenue sharing mechanism would not provide sufficient return to justify shareholder investment. The 50/50 gross revenue sharing implies equal sharing of benefits, but ignores the incremental costs, risks, and business liabilities incurred by shareholders…

Shareholders would have to recover all of their costs through the remaining 50%, if possible, resulting in disproportionally less or negative benefits for shareholders since customers do not incur any incremental costs. There is no evidence in the record that the 50/50 split is an economically viable mechanism to justify shareholder investment.

Both SCE and the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a non-profit organisation that claims to speak for consumers, filed longer written comments about Rechtschaffen’s draft.

TURN shows a similar lack of understanding about telecoms. It argues that SCE’s dark fiber business should micromanaged by the CPUC, similar to the way privately-owned electric utilities are regulated.

That’s nonsense. Electric utilities are monopolies that provide an essential service, and it is rational to regulate them as such. Independent dark fiber companies have to make their living competing against unregulated, monopoly business model telephone companies. Micromanaging one of the few remaining competitive sources of dark fiber in California, while ignoring, if not actively assisting, monopoly telcos is perverse.

Californian consumers need fast and affordable broadband service every bit as much as they need electricity. Thinking that cutting them in on more of SCE’s fiber revenue will be a benefit to them is pure fantasy. SCE put it correctly and succinctly in its comments: “the ‘interests of ratepayers’ are better served by 10% of gross revenues than by 50% of zero”.

SCE’s dark fiber future gets darker

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestLinkedInRedditEmail

Southern California Edison’s bid to get blanket approval of its dark fiber deal with Verizon from the California Public Utilities Commission continues to sink deeper into a quagmire. The CPUC commissioner in charge of the review wants to change the way SCE splits dark fiber revenue with its customers. The formula in effect for almost 20 years gives 10% of gross revenue back to ratepayers, but commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen thinks 50% is a better deal. SCE says that’s no deal at all, and intends to scrap the master contract it has with Verizon, in favor of doing fiber leases one at a time, under the old rules.

The Utility Reform Network (TURN), one of the outside organisations that “intervened” in the case, doesn’t like the idea of SCE simply canceling the review, calling it an attempt to “process shop”. It wants the commission to declare that SCE’s fiber business “has reached a level far greater than that envisioned for non-tariffed product or service, and on which the 90/10 shareholder/ratepayer revenue sharing is based”, as Rechtschaffen proposes.

There’s also the little problem of “intervenor compensation”. Under the system established by the California legislature and generously administered by the CPUC, TURN and other professional intervenors can bill SCE for the hours they spend opposing it. If the case doesn’t end in a decision, then it’s more difficult, if not impossible, for intervenors to collect.

Verizon has weighed in, too. It’s asking Rechtschaffen to change his mind and keep the details of its contract with SCE confidential, arguing that disclosure would have the exact opposite of its intended effect…

If the policy underpinning the conclusion to not provide confidential treatment to the Lease Route Orders and the redacted provisions of the MLA was to promote competitive access to Southern California Edison’s dark fiber, then that conclusion would have the opposite effect, as wireless carriers may decide that leasing from SCE would put at risk public disclosure of their competitively sensitive routes or other information and consequently refrain from leasing dark fiber from either SCE or other public utilities.

Electric utilities, like SCE and Pacific Gas and Electric, are a rare breed in the telecommunications world. They’re one of the few remaining sources of independent dark fiber in California. It’s time for the CPUC and TURN to recognise that the consumers whose interests they purport to defend need fast and affordable broadband service too. Killing what little competition remains in California’s highly concentrated broadband market is the wrong move.