Sen. Glazer Calls On Regulators, Legislators To Improve Safety, Reliability Of Electrical Grid And Cell Towers

Says PGE should pay for Contra Costa fire damage due to electrical line failures

Friday, November 01, 2019

State Sen. Steven Glazer (D-Contra Costa) called Friday for state regulators and the Legislature to consider far-reaching reforms aimed at strengthening California’s electrical grid against wildfires, keeping the power on during high-wind events, and ensuring that mobile phone service remains available during disasters. 

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Glazer said. “Ten-year plans are not sufficient. We need to move now to modernize our infrastructure and our laws so we can keep the power on and keep our communities safe.”

“Our residents demand and have a right to expect reliable electrical service. This is the 21st Century. We cannot and will not accept excuses from the utilities or long timelines from the regulators whose job it is to police them.”

Preliminary investigations have suggested that several of the fires in Contra Costa County over the past week were caused by PG&E’s lines or equipment, despite much of the county being subjected to power outages. 

“There must be a full investigation of these fires, and if PG&E is found to be at fault, full compensation to all whose property was damaged,” Glazer said.

The Legislature in the past two years has passed laws requiring utilities to invest more in hardening their systems to prevent damage from extreme weather and creating a utility-financed fund to compensate victims of wildfires caused by downed power lines. 

But Glazer urged the Public Utilities Commission and a special committee of the state Senate to investigate more far-reaching options. Among those ideas he said should be on the table:

--Expediting deferred maintenance on utility power lines, poles and towers and speeding the removal of trees that can damage those lines in high winds. The fires and the shutdowns are both caused by outdated equipment and poor maintenance. Fixing this must be the top priority.

--Exploring new ownership – including a public option – of PG&E and consider breaking the utility into smaller, more manageable pieces.

--Improving oversight of utility decisions to pre-emptively shut off power based on a weather forecast. We must require the utilities to be transparent about their decisions and we must insist that regulators ensure those decisions are based on sound science and judgments.

--Requiring utilities to compensate individuals and businesses harmed by preemptive power outages.  There must be greater financial incentives for the utilities to keep the power on when it is safe to do so. PG&E recently announced a voluntary plan to give rebates to customers who lost power, but the Legislature should consider a law making this state policy.

--Requiring PG&E to modernize its electrical system so that necessary shutdowns can be targeted with more precision. SDG&E in Southern California has already done this. PG&E should be able to do the same.

--Making the electrical system more resilient by encouraging the development of distributed electrical generation and “micro-grids” – at the individual and community level. This could include subsidies or other incentives for people with solar generation to also have batteries and the necessary equipment that will allow them to store their power, use it during utility outages, and share it with a nearby network of electricity users.

--Investigating the performance of cell phone networks during power outages. With more and more Californians living without landlines, cell phones have become a crucial link in our ability to learn about and respond to emergencies. These networks must be built to work in a disaster.

The Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee will convene a special oversight hearing on Nov. 18 to investigate the utilities’ current system for public safety power shutdowns and to review options for improving that system.

“This is a necessary step,” Glazer said. “But the power outages are only a symptom of far deeper problems. Even if we make the outages less painful, they will likely continue until we modernize the grid and give residents, businesses and communities more tools to generate, store and manage their own electricity.

“We need to do two things quickly and at the same time: fix the utilities while also making us less dependent on their too cumbersome, century-old model in this modern world.”