CPUC aiming regulatory guns at utilities that over-do power shut-off events

What is California to do during it’s yearly fire season in October/November? The last ten years this state has seen an uptick in huge wildfires, with seemingly every year having the largest wildfire ever only to be superseded with the one the following year. Some of the wildfires have been triggered by downed power lines – a heavy windstorm, knocking down power lines, causing sparks, that then ignite a wildfire. The 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise CA was sparked in just that way.

As a result electric utilities, and the CPUC, worked together to develop the Public Safety Power Shutoff protocol. A fallen power line that’s not energized with electricity cannot spark a fire. In the 2019 fire season, the PSPSE events launched by PG&E were very controversial, and drew heavy criticism from the CPUC. Today the CPUC issued a press release announcing an Investigation (formally known as an Order Instituting Investigation) of the 2019 PSPS events, utility compliance with CPUC regulations and requirements, any resulting violations, and potential actions to ensure utilities are held accountable.

Review of conditions during October 2019

In early October 2019 weather conditions looked ripe for a wind storm that could cause downed power lines that could trigger another fire. PG&E issued several press releases warning of the risk, warning about a possible PSPSE event, and then they instituted a power shutdown that affected hundreds of thousands of PG&E customers in northern California.

As I noted in a previous post this power shutdown caused a huge uproar of anger against PG&E. The electricity was out, folks weren’t ready, and maybe most people did not understand the background of what’s going on. They just knew their electricity was off. The shutdown did cause some major problems, such as a man who died within minutes of the shutdown starting because he didn’t have a backup power supply to keep life support equipment running.

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On October 15, 2019 PG&E issued a press release – Preliminary Review Confirms More than 100 Incidents of Damage and Hazard Locations; Photos Available Online, More Expected in Coming Days. On October 16, 2019, PG&E followed that up with: PSPS Wind Update: Wind Gusts in Nearly Two Dozen Counties Reached Above 40 MPH; in 15 Counties, Wind Gusts Topped 50 MPH. Together these document heavy wind conditions – just as weather forecasters had predicted. The power shutoff was because of the predicted weather, and PG&E says that during inspections after the windstorm several tree limbs or whole trees were found entangled in power lines. Obviously one or more of those could have triggered a wildfire.

But – that didn’t stop the public from yelling at PG&E, nor did it stop the CPUC from holding an emergency hearing that went badly for PG&E.

Weather forecasters predicted another wind storm for October 23, 2019. And, right on cue, there was a wind storm, and prior to the wind storm PG&E instituted a partial power shutdown. PG&E claims the conditions did not warrant a full power shutdown, and they kept high voltage transmission lines energized. Unfortunately during the evening of Oct. 23, during the wind storm, a fire was triggered outside Geyserville (known as the Kincade Fire because it was near Kincade Road) and at almost exactly the same time PG&E saw a failure on one of its transmission lines at the same spot as the fire.

In other words it’s extremely likely PG&E’s decision to energize the transmission line triggered a fire. By the next morning (October 24) the Kincade Fire had grown to 10,000 acres and by this morning (October 28) the fire had grown to over 66,000 acres, then by the evening (October 28) the fire had grown to 74,000 acres. There are over 4,000 firefighters working on containing the fire, it has destroyed over a hundred structures, a hundred thousand or so people have been evacuated from Sonoma County, and the fire is largely un-contained. During October 27, the Kincade Fire surrounded two cities (Healdsburg and Windsor) and is edging towards another city, Santa Rosa, parts of which were destroyed in 2017 by another wildfire.

On October 27 a “historic wind event” with gale force and sometimes hurricane force winds struck the area. PG&E launched a huge power shutdown event. Gov. Newsom said in a press conference on Oct. 28 that CalFire has put out over 300 fires during this time, without saying if any were triggered by downed power lines.

Another wind event is expected for October 29, and of course PG&E has announced a power shutdown for that day. Maybe.

One could argue that PG&E did what was needed – shut off power to avoid problems. But, the Kincade Fire. If we were to be generous we could say that the windstorm overwhelmed the system. But a more realistic assessment is that PG&E misjudged the risk.

What we see in the angry posts on Twitter is that PG&E is run by greedy money grabbers who are negligent with maintaining their equipment.

If we take PG&E at its word, the power shutdown events, they avoided possible wildfires. The problem with that assertion is it’s awfully hard to prove a negative – that is to prove that an event did not happen that would otherwise have happened.

It’s modern times – electricity is an “always-on” thing, isn’t it?

One defining feature of the modern age is reliable electricity supply. We don’t have to burn kerosene to read a book at night, nor do we need to crank up a gas generator to connect to the Internet. Our forefathers had to use gasoline powered computers to use the Internet, but thanks to electricity we don’t have to.

That last sentence was a joke that I put in to see if you’re still awake.

Basically we all are under the illusion that electricity is always available, and always will be available. The electric utilities are tasked with ensuring at least 99.999% reliability in the electricity grid. But, even if these power shutdown events did prevent some wildfires, the fact that electricity was shut down at all is shattering our illusion of ultra-reliable electricity.

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It’s not just about the inconvenience and the shattered myth of reliable electricity. The economic livelihood of the people is dependent on electricity supply being reliable.

There are a zillion different sort of electrically powered gizmos around us.

One benefit we expect is that electric gizmos will replace all gasoline or diesel powered gizmos, which will solve the climate change crisis.

CPUC’s announcement

Retrieved from the CPUC website.

CPUC TAKES ADDITIONAL DECISIVE ACTIONS TO HOLD UTILITIES ACCOUNTABLE AND INCREASE PUBLIC SAFETY

SAN FRANCISCO, October 28, 2019 – After another unprecedented series of Public Safety Power Shut-offs (PSPS) and historic wind events creating red flag warnings throughout much of the state, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) today is taking additional urgent actions focused on public health and safety to drive down risks of ignitions from utility infrastructure, risks that result from power loss, and the disruption to communities and commerce.

Grounded in the mandate established by Assembly Bill 1054 and building on a letter CPUC President Marybel Batjer sent to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) on October 14, 2019, as well as the results of a CPUC Emergency Meeting held to question PG&E on October 18, 2019, the CPUC will take a number of steps to ensure that the state’s experience this year with PSPS is not repeated. Those actions include:

  • Launching a Formal Investigation: The CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division will ask CPUC Commissioners in the next 30 days to open an investigation (formally known as an Order Instituting Investigation) of the 2019 PSPS events, utility compliance with CPUC regulations and requirements, any resulting violations, and potential actions to ensure utilities are held accountable.
  • Immediate Re-Examination of How Utilities Use PSPS: To prevent widespread PSPS events by the next fire season, President Batjer is issuing a new Ruling to reexamine the current PSPS protocol and the use of PSPS by investor-owned utilities. This includes an examination of actions that utilities can take in the next six months to minimize impacts of future PSPS events by increasing grid redundancy, segmentation, and equipment hardening.
  • Ensuring Additional Consumer Protection: The CPUC will ensure that for PSPS events, the utilities do not collect from their customers the charges that are a part of every customer’s bill so that customers are not charged for services they do not receive during PSPS events.
  • Expanding Wildfire Mitigation Plans for Immediate Impact: President Batjer will direct the utilities to expand their upcoming 2020 Wildfire Mitigation Plans to focus on increasing the safe performance of utilities, reduce the need for PSPS events, create more resilient communities, and provide results before the next wildfire season.
  • Enlist New Technology Partnerships: The CPUC will pull together a panel of experts to use data modeling and other advanced technologies to identify specific projects that can be implemented in coming months to minimize the use and scope of PSPS events next fire season. This team of experts will also analyze the effectiveness of utility mitigation plans and evaluate past PSPS events.

“The state cannot continue to experience PSPS events on the scope and scale Californians have experienced this month, nor should Californians be subject to the poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited,” said President Batjer. “Through the actions announced today, as well as other steps under our regulatory purview, the CPUC will demand that utilities prepare for and execute PSPS events in a way that greatly reduces impacts on Californians.”

To learn about other actions the CPUC has taken regarding PSPS and to access utility PSPS reports, please visit www.cpuc.ca.gov/PSPS.

The CPUC regulates services and utilities, safeguards the environment, and assures Californians’ access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure and services. For more information on the CPUC, please visit www.cpuc.ca.gov.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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