Over strong opposition from community activists and those harmed by utility-sparked wildfires, regulators unanimously approved the newest blueprint from Pacific Gas & Electric aimed at addressing wildfire risk reduction. Opponents called for the California Public Utilities Commission to reject the plan and increase its oversight and enforcement of PG&E. Yet the document met with official approval Oct. 21.
PG&E’s mitigation plan ranges from covering bare metal lines to notifying customers in advance of shutoffs, inspecting equipment, and removing trees. Last year’s plan cost $4.8 billion, and this year’s one is estimated to cost $5.1 billion, according to the CPUC.
Approval of those costs is a separate process from approval of the plan.
A resident of Butte County told the Commissioners that the approval amounted to a license to burn and kill. On Wednesday, Butte County joined four others in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court against PG&E for starting the Dixie Fire that burned close to 1 million acres.
CPUC President Marybel Batjer said regulators had little choice because the law requires them to approve utility fire mitigation plans when these are approved by the new Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety. “No one plan will solve all the real concerns of all Californians,” she added.
The office of energy safety, which approved PG&E’s mitigation plan on Sept. 23, is the CPUC’s former Wildfire Safety Division, renamed and moved to the California Natural Resources Agency in July. Its executive team consists of only a director.
PG&E said it appreciated both agency approvals and will continue to work with officials on improvements. PG&E also will keep “regulators, the public and other stakeholders informed as we continue our critical safety work,” added Ari Vanrenen, utility spokesperson.
Seeking effective public engagement
Other commissioners said the authority for plan approvals is not clear enough. CPUC member Cliff Rechtschaffen said it’s important to clarify how the public can effectively engage with the Commission.
Commissioner Martha Guzmán Aceves added PG&E’s mitigation plan was “stagnant” for not including PG&E’s plan to underground 10,000 miles of power lines announced after the start of the Dixie Fire, nor the safety orders issued by the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s probation case arising from destruction and death caused by utility infrastructure.
The 2022 mitigation plan is supposed to detail PG&E’s undergrounding work in the areas of greatest fire danger, estimated to cost roughly $20 billion.
The Commission resolution approved Thursday adds 29 areas of needed improvement, which PG&E must address in a report due Nov. 1. Its 2022 mitigation plan also is to address the remedies developed by the office of energy safety.
Earlier in the meeting, the CPUC approved PG&E recovering from ratepayers $445.4 million for part of its insurance premiums between 2017-2019. The proposed resolution would have had the money collected over three years, but the time was shortened to one year to limit the rate impacts to a single year.
Batjer said that will cause rates to increase for 12 months but will not affect rates in the 2022 and 2023 when they will be even higher due to other utility costs.