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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 5:04 am | Fair 45º


Utilities Commission to Develop Rules for Public Safety Power Shutoff Programs

Southern California Edison, whose equipment was involved in a Thomas Fire ignition point, could shut off power to South Coast customers during high winds

Utility companies can de-energize power lines to reduce the risk of wildfire, and the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday agreed to develop rules for the Public Safety Power Shutoffs.

The California Public Utilities Code gives electric utilities the authority to shut off power to protect public safety, which includes shutting it off to prevent fires “where strong winds, heat events and related conditions are present,” according to the CPUC.

Utility companies recently have developed programs to do so, including PG&E and Southern California Edison, which serve Santa Barbara County customers, prompting concerns about the effects of shutting off power to customers, including people who rely on home medical equipment.

The state oversight board plans to develop best practices for the shutoffs, including how much discretion to give companies, to ensure companies coordinate with first responders and that stakeholders get effective notice of a pending shutoff, how to minimize impacts to vulnerable populations and examine whether there are ways to reduce the need for shutoffs, according to the Thursday agenda.

Commissioners approved the Order Instituting Rulemaking, and workshops, hearings and comment periods are scheduled for early 2019. The CPUC is expected to issue a decision next summer.

The draft rules for utility companies to implement the shutoffs, developed in July, require them to “reasonably believe there is an imminent and significant risk that strong winds will topple its power lines onto tinder-dry vegetation or will cause major vegetation-related impacts on its facilities during periods of extreme fire hazard.”

San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has had a shutoff policy in place since 2008, after several wildfires the year before, and turned off power to customers twice in December 2017, according to the CPUC. SCE shut off power to the Idyllwild area in December 2017, while PG&E did not have a policy to de-energize power lines as a fire prevention measure before 2018, according to the CPUC.

​Following a destructive wildfire year in 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown in September signed Senate Bill 901, which reduces the utility companies’ wildfire liability, allowing them to pass some costs on to customers.

The Thomas Fire, which burned in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, started Dec. 4, 2017, near Santa Paula, and SCE has admitted its equipment was involved in one of the ignition points. Several agencies, including Cal Fire, are still investigating the cause of the blaze, but SCE has been named in several lawsuits, both related to the fire and the deadly post-fire debris flows in Montecito.

Utility company equipment has been involved in other recent wildfires, including last year’s blazes in Northern California. Cal Fire has said PG&E is to blame for more than 12 fires in California wine country last year, although the agency hasn’t determined the cause of the largest one, the Tubbs Fire, which wiped out much of Santa Rosa.

In Santa Barbara County, SCE has not yet implemented a Public Safety Power Shutoff. Company representative Bill Chiu told the Santa Barbara City Council in July that it is “the mitigation of last resort.”

The company’s Idyllwild outage that started Dec. 7, 2017, affected 8,061 customers and happened in response to a red-flag warning, which forecasts high winds, hot temperatures and low humidity.

Chiu said that outage lasted 34 hours for 5,000 residents. Weather would dictate the length of the outage, and it could last for days, he added.

While SCE says it plans to notify customers 48 hours and then 24 hours in advance of a planned shutoff, SCE did not notify affected customers in Idyllwild before turning off power. The company did notify city and government officials, according to the CPUC.

A CPUC workshop on utility company Public Safety Power Shutoff programs was held Friday in Santa Rosa and focused on the impacts to vulnerable populations. Another workshop is scheduled for Jan. 9 in Calabasas, focused on first responders and local government.

Click here for more information on the meetings and de-energization programs.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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