Tag Archives: utility regulation

“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”.

High priced, low performing broadband service hits rural Californians hard

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

A California Public Utility Commission analysis of utility service affordability in California used household income, local cost of living and utility cost figures for far northern California – Siskiyou, Modoc and Lassen counties – to illustrate a proposed method for determining whether people can actually afford the utility service that they need. The example also illustrates a serious problem in rural California: the high cost and low quality of broadband service.

For the most part, the CPUC has no role in regulating, setting or monitoring the cost of broadband subscriptions, or the level of service provided. One exception comes when an Internet service provider asks for a grant from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), the state’s primary broadband infrastructure subsidy program. So the authors of the CPUC’s white paper looked at a grant given to the Siskiyou Telephone Company, an independent rural telco that serves customers in Siskiyou County.

The price that grant’s conditions allow for subsidised service that meets the 20 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload standard that the study identified as the “essential” minimum for 21st century households is $150 a month. For low income residents, that’s somewhere between 8% and 9% of remaining household income after housing costs are paid, and represent 12.5 hours of work at minimum wage.

That’s a significant burden, according to the study…

Even when receiving a CASF grant, the rates offered by this provider still make up a sizeable portion of the household’s utility budget. While these bills are not necessarily onerous for customers in the middle of the income distribution, customers at the 20th percentile spend around 3 times as much of their income after housing costs on telecommunications service.

In addition, contrary to other affordability studies allocating a minimal amount of expenses for telecommunications services, this analysis illustrates that telecommunications services are the highest utility expense incurred by a household in this [area].

That high cost, low performance paradox is common in rural California, particularly in areas that have to rely on wireless Internet service providers, who often charge even more than Siskiyou Telephone for service that’s even slower and less reliable.

Hancock, Ho, Sieren-Smith, Tome, Enriquez, Lai, Staff Proposal on Essential Service and Affordability Metrics, California Public Utilities Commission, 20 August 2019.

“Essential” broadband is fixed service at 20 Mbps down/3 Mbps up, CPUC white paper says

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Forbes ag tech hartnell alisal demo 13jul2107

“Voice and broadband services required for education; telehealth; safety; and participation in society, such as completing job applications and accessing government assistance programs” will be defined as “essential services” in California if recommendations by California Public Utilities Commission staff are eventually adopted by commissioners.

According to a staff white paper on essential utility service affordability, for broadband service that means a minimum of 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, with a monthly data cap of no less than 1 terabyte (1,024 gigabytes). That’s significantly more than the 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up service level that the California legislature adopted as the state’s minimum broadband speed standard when it bowed to bags full of cash polite requests from AT&T, Comcast, Charter and other incumbent telecoms companies eager to protect their monopoly model businesses.

People need reliable broadband connectivity, according to the paper, and it needs to be fixed service; mobile broadband doesn’t cut it…

Fixed broadband is an essential service for Californians to be able to participate fully in society. For example, telehealth usage had a 1,202% growth between 2012 and 2017. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that “[a]ccess to broadband has become essential for students in all levels of education.” Furthermore, staff finds that mobile broadband services are not a viable substitute for fixed broadband services due to cost, access, and capacity limitations of wireless technology. For example, schoolwork, job applications, and government services are functions that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish on mobile. In addition, mobile services provide lower speeds, lower data caps, higher latency and higher prices compared to wireline broadband.

To determine whether all Californians can afford that level of service, the paper looks at three potential metrics: 1. the total cost of essential water, energy and telecoms service divided by household income remaining after housing costs are paid, 2. the number of hours of minimum wage work needed to pay that cost, and 3. a statistically based index that measures ability to pay on the basis of economic vulnerability.

Although the paper looks at some examples (more on that later), it doesn’t try to define what an affordable monthly price for broadband service, or other utilities, would be. Instead, it proposes a methodology for calculating those figures and a framework for applying it.

It’ll ultimately be up to the five CPUC commissioners to decide whether or not to adopt it. They ought to. It’s an excellent piece of work.

A workshop is scheduled for next Monday in San Francisco to discuss the methods and data proposed by the white paper, then public comments will be accepted in September. You can bet that incumbent telephone and cable companies will offer vociferous opposition.

Hancock, Ho, Sieren-Smith, Tome, Enriquez, Lai, Staff Proposal on Essential Service and Affordability Metrics, California Public Utilities Commission, 20 August 2019.

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.

California lawmakers bury bills to bury electric lines

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

In the wake of last year’s deadly wildfires, California lawmakers proposed legislation to reduce future risk by reducing electric line exposure. Those ambitions didn’t amount to much, though. Two bills to encourage utilities to move lines off of poles and place them underground, particularly in high fire risk areas were scrapped. A third one was neutered, but is still moving forward.

Senate bill 70 was passed unanimously by the senate and is awaiting its fate in the assembly. Authored by Jim Nielsen (R – Tehama), it’s less ambitious than first drafted. It establishes a “working group” to “promote the undergrounding of electrical infrastructure and the implementation of a statewide joint trenching policy”. Any money to pay for it, though, would have be found later. Originally, it included stronger language that would have required utilities to put lines underground when rebuilding or cleaning up after a wildfire.

That said, it could be useful. Anything that encourages cooperation between electric and telecoms companies, and local and state agencies, when trenching projects are planned, is a good thing.

SB 584, authored by John Moorlach (R – Orange) was killed behind closed doors by the senate appropriations committee. It began the most ambitious undergrounding bill, earmarking $400 million a year to pay for utility line relocation. It was subsequently watered down to “an unspecified amount”, and finally left behind when legislative leaders cleared the appropriation committee’s suspense file.

Assembly bill 281, by Jim Frazier (D – Contra Costa) didn’t go anywhere either. It died without a hearing in the assembly utilities and energy committee. New rules this year allow committee chairs to simply ignore legislation they, or the lobbyists that stuff cash in their pockets provide them with sage advice, don’t like. In its various forms it would have loosened environmental reviews of undergrounding projects and/or given the California Public Utilities Commission the job of requiring utilities to move lines underground in high fire risk areas.

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.

Crown Castle won’t have to wait for new PG&E pole attachment terms, CPUC says

by Steve Blum • , , ,

PG&E wants a do-over on a utility pole access decision by the California Public Utilities Commission, but it’ll have to comply with it in the meantime. Wednesday, the CPUC’s executive director refused to delay execution of an arbitrated contract between PG&E and Crown Castle while commissioners decide what they’re going to do with the appeal filed by PG&E last month.

The CPUC’s decision gives PG&E 45 days to approve or deny Crown Castle’s pole attachment requests. If the shot clock expires, Crown Castle can move ahead without permission and install fiber lines on PG&E poles. It also requires PG&E to keep Crown Castle informed of other attachment requests, but allows Crown Castle to work on its own lines without giving PG&E advance notice, so long as no electrical shutoffs are needed. A few days after the commission unanimously approved those new contract terms, PG&E asked for a rehearing, citing safety concerns.

The decision gave PG&E two weeks to sign the deal, which are long gone. Crown Castle wants the commission to forget about any rehearings and “take all enforcement measures possible, including penalties and other measures” to force PG&E to get on with it. Which is what, it seems, PG&E will have to do. Wednesday’s letter from CPUC executive director Alice Stebbins said there will be no delay because “merely making a general statement of irreparable harm and referencing the filing of an application for rehearing are insufficient grounds for me to grant the requested extension”.

All this is happening while the CPUC slowly considers whether pole attachment and route management rules need to be changed – it began an inquiry more than two years ago – and while federal are moving more quickly to resolve PG&E’s bankruptcy filing and potential violations of criminal probation terms. It could get more complicated.

Ad hoc decisions will make utility pole safety problems worse, PG&E tells CPUC

by Steve Blum • , , ,

PG&E doesn’t like the pole attachment terms Crown Castle was granted by the California Public Utilities Commission, and is asking for a do-over. At its recent meeting, commissioners unanimously approved contract terms decided by a CPUC administrative law judge who was acting as an arbitrator in a dispute between the two companies.

It’s more than just a simple contract dispute, though. Pole route management policy is getting a hard look by the CPUC and by federal courts that are dealing with PG&E’s bankruptcy filing and criminal probation in the wake of deadly fires sparked by overhead lines. PG&E argues that piecemeal decision making will only make things worse.

Crown Castle wanted to attach fiber optic cables to PG&E’s poles, and buy the necessary space instead of leasing it, as PG&E prefers when a company only wants to occupy one vertical foot of pole space. It claimed that being able to buy the space gives it comparable privileges to big incumbents, such as AT&T, that typically buy all of the pole space available – the communications zone – and then manage attachments for all telecoms users.

The ALJ, Patricia Miles, ruled that PG&E didn’t have to sell space but, in a baseball-style arbitration decision, imposed lease terms that mimic many of the advantages of ownership that Crown Castle sought. Acting unusually quickly, the commission gave her decision a final blessing ten days later.

Both the speed and the substance of the CPUC’s action didn’t sit well with PG&E, which filed a request for a rehearing on Friday. Many of its objections revolve around what it regards as conflicts with the CPUC’s basic rules for managing pole attachments by telecoms companies and other issues involving the use of the public right of way by utilities, which were laid down in a 1998 decision.

Those rules are being reexamined in excruciating detail in a separate CPUC proceeding involving all of California’s major electric and telecoms companies, and many smaller ones. PG&E told the commission that this is a bad time to make decisions on the fly…

In the current environment of the ‘new-normal’ and the imperative to maintain the safety of PG&Es infrastructure these increased and expedited access and attachment terms are imprudent. Such increased access affects safety, which is a concern of the public, the CPUC, and both electric and telecom utilities. All parties need time for full exploration of requirements and risks that would be the outcome of such changes.

Pole route safety is a complicated, high stakes issue in California right now. After two years of massive wildfires started by overhead electric lines that killed dozens of people and caused billions of dollars of damage, everything is on the table, including a possible state takeover of electric utilities. At the same time, fiber construction is accelerating to support upgrades of residential, commercial and mobile broadband service. Speed matters for both, but optimal decisions for either often run in opposite directions. Ad hoc tinkering, like the PG&E/Crown Castle decision, will make the problem worse. The better course is for the CPUC to focus its resources on the bigger proceeding and wrap it up in a timely manner.

Collected documents from the Crown Castle/PG&E pole attachment arbitration at the CPUC are here.

Conduit, right of way, pole attachment, dark fiber and franchise agreement documents are here.

Four California counties say “no criminal charges” for PG&E

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pacific Gas and Electric won’t face criminal charges for its role in starting several northern California fires in 2018. District attorneys in Sonoma, Napa, Humboldt and Lake counties announced that they can’t prove a case. According to a press release from Sonoma County district attorney Jill Ravitch, the necessary evidence burned up along with everything else…

The cases that were referred for prosecution all required proof that PG&E acted with criminal negligence in failing to remove dead and dying trees. Under California law, criminal negligence requires proof of actions that are reckless and incompatible with a proper regard for human life, and any charges must be proven unanimously to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Proving PG&E failed in their duty to remove trees was made particularly difficult in this context as the locations where the fires occurred, and where physical evidence could have been located, were decimated by the fires.

Last year, Cal Fire determined that some of the many fires that roared through California’s wine country began when trees or other vegetation came into contact with PG&E electric lines. The deadliest fire – the Tubbs fire – which killed 22 people and spread as far as city neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, was not linked to PG&E’s equipment according to Cal Fire. That one was apparently started by electric lines strung across private property by the landowners.

So far, prosecutors in other counties affected by fires linked to PG&E infrastructure have declined to charge PG&E with crimes. But that’s cold comfort. Ravitch was careful to point out that “PG&E remains on federal criminal probation and is a defendant in many private civil cases arising out of the wildfires”, including one that the County of Sonoma is pursuing. The combined liability PG&E faces from those fires as well as last year’s even deadlier Camp Fire is expected to top $30 billion. Who gets paid and how much is now in the hands of a federal bankruptcy court.