In summary

Authorities may ask utility companies to provide real-time outage updates, help create community centers where vulnerable people can seek refuge and practice better notification procedures. 

California authorities have attacked the state’s wildfire crisis from every imaginable angle, but one of the most stubborn problems  involves what happens when fire risk is high and utility companies shut off power so their equipment doesn’t spark a blaze.

To avert the confusion, inconvenience and safety and health issues that many residents experienced in last year’s widespread cutoffs, regulators are now finalizing rules for how power companies should curtail service, inform the public and safeguard communities in such situations. 

They are considering asking utilities to improve their websites, provide real-time outage updates, help create community centers where vulnerable people can seek refuge and stage dry runs to practice such changes before the start of high fire season.

Although utility equipment is believed responsible for only about one in 10 California fires, those attributed to power lines make up more than half the state’s most destructive blazes. Nearly 2 million Californians endured preemptive blackouts meant to protect them from fire during extreme conditions last fall. 

The extent and duration of those cuts angered consumers — particularly customers of Pacific Gas and Electric —  by forcing schools to close, leaving food to spoil in refrigerators and raising safety concerns for vulnerable residents who needed electricity to run medical equipment.

Officials scolded PG&E, the state’s largest utility, for mishandling the outages. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the emergency shutoffs were “the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety.”

The Public Utilities Commission, which regulates large power companies, ordered  immediate corrective action, with commission President Marybel Batjer outlining multiple “failures in execution” in a letter to PG&E’s chief executive.

The commission issued preliminary rules governing blackouts last summer. Those basic rules  called for state and local agencies to coordinate with utility companies to inform the public about proposed blackouts and said power cuts must be a measure of last resort.

Further recommendations, augmenting those requirements, were made about a month ago. The commission will vote on them in May, before California’s hot, dry summer begins. Among them:

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  • Utility companies must organize monthly meetings with a broad list of local authorities to continually assess what communities need when power is cut. They must file a report to the commission outlining the proceedings and any recommendations or issues that came up. 
  • Power companies and state and local agencies must plan annual blackout-related exercises in high-risk areas before the start of each fire season. Test runs would be performed with notifications and other communication systems, backup power sources and the operation of community centers and critical infrastructure that is not specified.
  • Utilities must improve communications overall, including managing their websites to better inform customers, devise more effective ways to reach out to the public and ensure that accurate, up-to-date information is available.
  • Power companies, along with local health and safety authorities and advocacy groups, must design a plan to accommodate vulnerable people by establishing community resource centers. Those facilities should operate 24 hours a day during outages and not be farther away than a 30-minute drive. The sites should be well known to residents and provide shelter, heating, cooling and other necessities to those needing assistance.
  • Companies should restore power as soon as possible, and no later than 24 hours after conditions that necessitated the shutoff have passed.

Much of the state’s effort focuses on keeping water pumps, street lights and airports up and running and ensuring that elderly and medically compromised individuals are not stranded. In some northern California counties last fall, for example, hospice workers had difficulty transporting home-bound patients to hospitals.

“In some cases, we are their only contact with the outside world, and then the power goes out,” said Fernando Diaz, marketing director for Hospice by the Bay, which operates facilities for end-of-life patients and provides caregivers for patients who wish to stay at home.

“These blackouts mean they can’t operate their medical equipment and health monitors,” Diaz said. “It’s vitally important that we are mindful of this vulnerable population.”

The commission proceedings are open for public comment, and there’s plenty of it, much of it scathing, taking PG&E, in particular, to task for the October shutdowns.

In a comment about about community resource centers — which utilities are required to establish to give residents at least one public space with access to power — Rural County Representatives of California, an organization that advocates on rural issues, said there were too few, “too far from residents, open too few hours and sometimes delayed in opening” during blackouts.

“Failure to plan ahead and properly coordinate with local governments led to significant delays in opening many (centers),” the organization said. Most “were only open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and therefore could not serve customers dependent upon electricity to recharge medical devices with a battery life of less than 12 hours.”

What’s not on the table: a ban on pre-emptive blackouts. Even harsh critics aren’t calling for suspension of the practice — just improvement.

East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides service to Alameda and Contra Costa Counties and San Francisco’s East Bay, called for more transparency about decisions to cut off power.

PG&E should provide “detailed justification for each event, using actual weather data, for the circuits that were de-energized,” the district’s comment said, “so the rationale behind the scope is understood.”

Bill Dodd, a Democratic state senator from Napa, which has been ravaged by fire in recent years, has proposed several measures intended to temper the impact of shutoffs.

“There’s no silver bullet that’s going to solve this,” Dodd said. “But we need to make sure to protect people. The scope of the (October) shutoff was entirely too broad. (PG&E) couldn’t even keep their website up. We have to do better.”

Dodd is proposing that utilities be required to have plans to assist medically vulnerable residents and that some facilities be allowed to run large diesel generators during shutoffs without incurring penalties from local authorities.

He also wants the state to establish a fund to reimburse school districts that lose attendance-based funding because of blackouts. And he proposes grants for local governments to ensure reliable backup power during preventive outages.

San Francisco Democrat Scott Wiener, a state senator, wants to bar utilities from charging for electricity during planned blackouts and establish a mechanism for customers to be reimbursed for spoiled food or financial loss.

One thing not on the table in those proposals or the commission’s proceedings is a ban on pre-emptive blackouts. Even critics who have had harsh things to say about how the outages played out last fall are not calling for suspension of the practice — just improvement.

“The PUC has decided this is a method for fire prevention; that’s a call for them to make,” said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, which advocates for power-company customers.

“But the system requires more than tweaks,” she said. “The two choices shouldn’t be to get shut off or to be burned out.”

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...