Commentary: Regulators need to hear impact of power shutoffs


Issue Date: November 27, 2019
By Robert Spiegel and Karen Norene Mills
Public safety power shutoffs have caused losses and disruptions for agricultural operations. Farm Bureau is collecting information about the agricultural impact to share with state regulators.

Californians expect electricity service will be available on demand. The unfortunate events of this autumn, when more than 2 million Californians found themselves without electrical power, caused hardship for many and left unanswered questions related to public safety power shutoffs, or de-energization.

The recent PSPS events will have profound and lasting consequences for California's investor-owned utilities and for the communities that were once again forced to evacuate from wind-driven wildfires.

The California Public Utilities Commission is conducting investigations of the 2019 PSPS events, including re-examining the protocols and usage of PSPS by utilities. The California Legislature has announced creation of a legislative working group and a state Senate committee will convene oversight hearings to further investigate the usage and associated impacts of PSPS. State legislators have called upon Gov. Newsom to organize a special session of the Legislature, while others have introduced legislative proposals aimed at de-privatizing or municipalizing portions of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Among all of this, PG&E bankruptcy proceedings continue.

The long and the short of it: The California electricity industry is a mess, and in some areas of California, electricity will remain unreliable for the foreseeable future.

The PSPS events paralyzed many California communities and arguably contributed to public safety risks. These events were not mere inconveniences but significant hardships for many Californians.

PSPS is a tool provided to California utilities by state law, which grants them authority to shut off power in emergency situations when deemed necessary for the protection of public safety. Even with this authority, many people remain unconvinced the recent usage of PSPS by the utilities was reasonable or judicious.

The hope was that these de-energization events would be rare and fulfill the goal of keeping people and property safe from utility-sparked wildfires. Though on its face it seemed a reasonable solution and would arguably mirror existing de-energization protocols used by San Diego Gas and Electric Co., the reality was a cascading series of challenges that left some PG&E customers without power for six to 11 days.

Though the shutoffs perhaps were initiated correctly to respond to a once-in-30-year wind event, they were implemented poorly. The magnitude of the events was only exacerbated by the ill-preparedness of the utility. Despite the emphasis PG&E placed on outreach and preparing customers potentially impacted by a PSPS, it seems the utility should have been listening to its own advice.

For several months, the California Farm Bureau Federation has encouraged members to be adequately prepared for these eventualities. As agricultural customers, we have unique concerns related to de-energization that are not appreciated by the utilities, despite Farm Bureau's continual efforts to educate them.

For agriculture, power shutoffs become a major threat to the safety of livestock, as pumps used for water deliveries are no longer available. The additional impacts to farming operations—such as unavailability of cold storage and the loss of receiving, shipping and packaging capabilities, especially for a prolonged de-energization during a harvest—could financially ruin an agricultural business.

CFBF has long been an active participant in discussions about the future of the state's electric service, both at the CPUC and at the state Capitol. We continue to be directly involved in any discussions between our members and the individual utilities related to de-energization and to the removal of agricultural vegetation.

As state regulators further examine the usage of PSPS, it's crucially important that they hear from Farm Bureau members about the impacts of these events. Several county Farm Bureaus have solicited input from their members, and it's essential to have more than anecdotal information to share with potential decision makers. Please contact us at cfbf@cfbf.com or 916-446-4647 with information about how PSPS has affected you.

Continuing these widespread de-energization events is an inadequate solution to California's wildfire problems.

PSPS is a tool that can help minimize the potential of catastrophic wildfire, but PG&E remains at least a decade away from having the surgical precision SDG&E uses for PSPS. At the very minimum, investments in utility infrastructure must be made in the areas and communities at greatest risk of wildfire; this would include increased emphasis on vegetation management, as opposed to the removal of agricultural orchards outside of fire risk zones.

What hasn't changed for PG&E is the extensive debt and cost of deferred maintenance, the liabilities from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, and the future expenses to harden, sectionalize and improve utility infrastructure. Billions of dollars from California ratepayers will be required in the form of higher electrical rates.

CFBF will continue to advocate for its members during the long-term modernization of California's utilities.

(Robert Siegel is a policy advocate and Karen Norene Mills is director of legal services for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.