By Tristan Stidham
On January 26, 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) held a hearing to address Southern California Edison’s (SCE) continued Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). In a January 19, 2021 letter to SCE’s President and CEO Kevin Payne, CPUC President Marybel Matjer expressed “deep concern” with respect to SCE’s overall execution of the various PSPS events in 2020, describing its performance as “tactless” and “deficient in meeting the standard its customers deserved.” The letter noted that from May through December 2020, there were 16 PSPS events and that in the course of these events, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) observed that SCE underperformed in a number of areas. These included transparency, communicating with customers and state and local governments, and identification of, especially at-risk customers. The letter ordered Mr. Payne, along with five specifically named Vice-Presidents, to appear at the January 26 public meeting of the CPUC, CAL FIRE, and Cal OES to answer questions regarding its PSPS execution, and to file corrective plans with the CPUC by February 12, 2021. SCE sent a reply to the Commission on January 22, 2021, agreeing to work with the CPUC to provide the required information, and “take whatever actions are necessary to make further improvements.”
The four-and-a-half-hour hearing included statements from various politicians including local Mayors, County Supervisors, Assembly Members, State Senators, and a Congressman. These officials expressed the concerns of their constituents, as well as the burdens that shutdowns imposed on public administrations and safety. In particular, Congressman Mike Garcia claimed that the harm from the shutdowns could be even greater than from likely fires. Public comment from SCE customers included complaints about lost food, and other damages without compensation from the utility. Witnesses expressed outrage that, despite these failures, SCE is looking to raise rates in February.
After these and other comments, SCE gave a presentation at the hearing. The company defended the necessity of shutoffs, noting there were 60 instances where wind damage could have started a fire. They did, however, lay out a plan for improvement. SCE further agreed that PSPS should only be used as a last resort, and laid out methods to improve their decisional transparency, and also to better notify customers and coordinate with government agencies.
Following the hearing, on February 19, 2021, the CPUC announced that it issued a series of proposed additional guidelines that utilities must follow in 2021 and beyond to minimize the impacts of PSPS events. The guidelines include requirements to ensure that utilities are providing precise and accurate information to customers; reaching non-English speaking customers; reaching the most vulnerable; utilizing the expertise of community partners; properly trained in emergency management; and learn from and report on each PSPS event. The proposed guidelines are contained Attachment 1 to Commissioner Batjer’s February 19, 2021 Phase 3 Scoping Memo and Ruling in its ongoing Rulemaking Proceeding to Examine Utility De-Energization of Power lines in Dangerous Conditions (R.18-12-005). Public Comments may be submitted in the “public comments” tab on the proceeding’s docket.
According to the scoping memo, which extends the statutory deadline of the rulemaking proceeding to July 30, 2022, a proposed decision with respect to the Phase 3 staff proposal is expected by May 2021.