By Sammy Roth

Los Angeles Times

Electric utilities are under increasing pressure to shut down power lines during dangerous weather conditions to stop fires from sparking. State officials want to make sure those shut-offs don’t do more harm than good.

The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Thursday to begin crafting new rules for turning off electricity when fire risk is high.

The agency’s move follows a second straight year of devastating wildfires across California, some of which were started or may have been started by electric utility equipment.

The recent fires could result in billions of dollars in liability for the state’s two largest utilities, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, giving them a strong incentive to try to prevent future blazes by de-energizing power lines when the weather is dry and windy.

In the last year, the companies have cut power to customers for fire-prevention reasons for the first time in recent memory.

Proponents of turning off the power when the landscape is primed for fire say it’s one of the cheapest, easiest steps utilities can take to avert widespread destruction.

“We need new tools,” Michael Picker, president of the Public Utilities Commission, said before Thursday’s vote. “In this era, with the ferocity and unprecedented damages we’re seeing from wildfires, we can’t keep doing the same thing.”

Power shut-offs can cause problems. Some people depend on electricity to power medical devices.

A lack of electricity can create additional hazards when blazes do spark, making it harder for residents without landlines to find out about evacuation orders and potentially limiting the ability for firefighters to pump water.

Making shut-offs safer is the goal of the rulemaking process opened recently by the commission. The agency plans to examine a list of questions, including how utilities should notify the public of possible shut-offs, how to limit the effects on people with life-support devices and how utility officials should coordinate with first responders.

The commission could create a new set of rules governing when and how utilities turn off the lights.

Elizaveta Malashenko, who leads the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division, said the rules the agency develops will largely be determined by who takes part in the conversation.

One issue the commission will consider is what steps utilities should take to help people cope with shut-offs. Malashenko said the discussion might include shorter-term measures such as heating and cooling centers where people can charge their phones and stay safe, and longer-term measures such as reconfiguring utility infrastructure so de-energizing power lines in high-risk areas causes fewer customers to lose electricity.

Some participants in the commission’s rulemaking may suggest making shut-offs more palatable by building small, local electric systems that can be disconnected from the larger power grid.

Anne Hoskins, chief policy officer for the San Francisco-based rooftop solar installer Sunrun, noted that in the days leading up to the Camp Fire’s ignition last month, PG&E warned 70,000 customers in Northern California it might shut down power in communities including Paradise.

In the end, the utility kept the power on, and the Camp fire was ignited, destroying most of Paradise.

A cause for the fire has yet to be determined, but there’s early evidence PG&E’s power lines may be to blame.

“We can build a system that can be more self-reliant and support that kind of situation,” Hoskins said.

Power shut-offs are more controversial than traditional fire mitigation measures, which explains why utilities have avoided them.

Shut-offs are a more surefire way to prevent fires, which is why state officials are preparing for utilities to use them more often.

Edison shut off power lines for wildfire-prevention reasons last December, causing about 8,000 homes and businesses in the Idyllwild area to lose electricity for a day and a half. PG&E faced fierce criticism from customers after it preemptively turned off electricity for 60,000 customers in October of this year.

San Diego Gas & Electric, the state’s third-largest utility, has a history of power shut-offs. SDG&E worked with state regulators to develop rules governing shut-offs after a trifecta of deadly fires in 2007. The Public Utilities Commission expanded those rules to cover Edison and PG&E earlier this year, and the utilities created protocols for evaluating the weather conditions that might necessitate shut-offs.

Michael Wara, who leads the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said thinks the costs of shutting off power more frequently are worth it, especially when compared to more expensive steps.

“We can’t afford to have a single ignition on a red flag day in a lot of these communities,” Wara said.

Several members of the Public Utilities Commission said before Thursday’s vote they saw power shut-offs as increasingly needed to prevent wildfire ignition, alongside other actions utilities can take to reduce risks.

Commissioner Carla Peterman described shut-offs as “an option we don’t want to have to exercise often, but will exercise as necessary.”

As part of a separate process at the Public Utilities Commission, the state’s investor-owned utilities are starting work on “wildfire mitigation plans” outlining their overall strategies for preventing and fighting fires, as required by a bill approved by the Legislature last year. Those mitigation plans could include insulating power lines, pruning trees near electrical infrastructure and building advanced weather-tracking stations.

Even before that process got started, Edison unveiled a sweeping plan to reduce wildfire risks from its power lines, asking for permission from state officials to charge ratepayers $582 million for the work.

In a written statement, Edison said it “looks forward to participating” in the commission’s new process to develop rules for power shut-offs.

PG&E “supports the Commission’s continued efforts in looking into this critical issue and examining the rules for proactively de-energizing power lines,” the company said in a written statement.