California’s chief utility regulators and a Pacific Gas & Electric executive testified Thursday that the utility is behind on installing devices meant to ease the severity of power shut-offs during potential wildfires and hasn’t yet hired and trained emergency response specialists in each county.
The testimony came during a hearing of the California Senate’s committee on utilities.
A data portal that shows the locations of critical facilities like hospitals and where medically vulnerable customers live went online recently after technical delays, said Rachel Peterson, a deputy director at the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utilities.
“Because of those delays, PG&E cannot afford to lose any more time,” Peterson said.
It’s the latest setback for the bankrupt utility as it tries to modernize its infrastructure that has been blamed for causing deadly wildfires that killed more than 100 people in 2017 and 2018.
PG&E had committed to installing nearly 600 devices by September to break up transmission lines so fewer people lose power when the utility proactively cuts electricity to prevent wildfires, as it did for the first time last year. Commission officials said the utility has fallen behind on those installations, although a company representative later said the utility still plans to meet the goal.
That’s “the area where we’re furthest behind,” said PG&E Vice President Debbie Powell, who is working on wildfire safety programs.
Those upgrades and wildfire mitigation are expected to cost PG&E customers about $90 more a year starting next year. Southern California Edison customers can expect a $70 annual increase and San Diego Gas & Electric customers $24 a year, commission officials said. Falling revenue estimates in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may lead to even more increases for all utilities.
Powell said PG&E was adding new high-definition cameras and building 400 weather stations this year to monitor conditions at high-risk locations, adding to 600 installed last year that she said has “significantly improved” its ability to forecast fires.
Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, needled Powell over PG&E CEO Bill Johnson’s comments last year that California should expect preventive power outages for the next decade before they are “really ratcheted down significantly.”
Powell instead said conditions will improve every year. “I think we will be continuing to invest in our system for many years. And that’s where I’ll leave it,” she said.
Commission President Marybel Batjer said her “optimism” about PG&E’s recovery was “informed by some concern” about the company’s bankruptcy proceedings and its management.
“I do believe that things that are at the top of that company don’t always get to the implementation people,” she said.
Meanwhile, San Diego Gas & Electric’s Brian D’Agostino testified that it had acquired a new fire-suppression helicopter, though the fire season forecast is “below normal” in that region after April rains.