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SF state senator moves to curb PG&E’s week-long blackout plan

Utility warns it could turn off power for up to a week for fire threats

California’s PG&E Offers Media Tour Of It’s Wildfire Operations Center
PG&E’s new Wildfire Safety Operations Center in San Francisco.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) warned Bay Area residents in August that it might shut off power for as long as a week to major California cities, including San Francisco, as part of its new anti-wildfire measures.

In response, SF-based State Sen. Scott Wiener just introduced a new bill, SB 378, that would limit blackout plans. He says that, with extended power shutoffs, the utility outfit is simply trading one potential danger for another.

“Utilities now have a strong financial incentive to err on the side of blackouts—even when they aren’t necessary—and very little incentive to avoid large blackouts,” Wiener said via email Friday. “Blackouts can have devastating impacts on vulnerable seniors, people with health problems, businesses, and public safety agencies.”

Among other things, the new bill would:

Establish a procedure for customers, local governments, and others affected by a de-energization event to recover costs accrued during the de-energization event from an electrical corporation within 2 weeks of the end of the event. The bill would require an electrical corporation to create a fund, of an amount to be determined [...] for the recovery of costs accrued by customers, local governments, and others during a de-energization event. The bill would require that money be paid into the fund exclusively by the electrical corporation’s shareholders.

The new law would also fine PG&E per the hour for blackouts—the hope evidently being that a fee schedule would make gratuitous blackouts unattractive to the company.

Nobody at PG&E was immediately available for comment. The new legislation cites the city of San Jose as a sponsor.

[Update: Via email, PG&E’s James Noonan says, “We are reviewing the language of the bill. PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff is designed to keep our customers, their families and communities safe during periods of extreme weather and heightened fire risk.”]

In August, the utility began warning customers via email that intentional power outages “for a minimum of 24 hours and up to a week” might occur if there’s reason to suspect that live power lines may pose a particular danger of starting fires.

This can happen even in places like San Francisco with a very low fire risk, because parts of the grid that support SF elsewhere may need to be shut off.

“Any customer who receives electric service from PG&E should be prepared for a possible public safety power outage,” PG&E warned.

PG&E claims to serve 16 million people in the state, and provides power for virtually the entirety of Northern California.