Holding PG&E Accountable

(Steve fielding constituent questions including PG&E)

“Our most urgent priority is to get PG&E and the other utilities to do everything possible to end these outages. This situation simply cannot be the new normal. We must also ensure our most vulnerable residents do not see their lives threatened if the lights go off.”
– Senator Steve Glazer

“The status quo is not acceptable.”

In response to PG&E’s potential culpability for last year’s wildfires in Contra Costa County and elsewhere, Senator Glazer called for far-reaching changes in the state’s utility system aimed at strengthening the grid, saving lives and holding PG&E accountable.

Glazer urged the Public Utilities Commission and a special committee of the state Senate to investigate 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 The fires and the shutdowns are both caused by outdated equipment and poor maintenance.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 PG&E’s decisions to pre-emptively shutoff 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 PG&E 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.

“The status quo is not acceptable,” Glazer said. “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 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.

Strict, immediate measures to compensate victims.

Glazer fought for strict, immediate measures to care for victims were and prevent PG&E was escaping responsibility. He voted to:

  • Require utilities to improve wildfire prevention by hardening the grid to withstand high winds. (SB 901).
  • Prevent utilities from billing ratepayers for the cost of company executive compensation, bonuses and benefits (SB 901).
  • Protect ratepayers from being billed for the damage from fires caused by utility negligence. (SB 901)
  • Create a $21 billion relief fund to compensate victims of wildfires caused by utility power equipment. The fund was financed without increasing consumer utility bills. (AB 1954).

Protecting our most vulnerable during an outage.

Following the wildfires, Senator Glazer introduced a legislative package to help Californians deal with some of the worst effects of power outages until PG&E and other utilities can ensure that they can keep the lights on during dangerous high-wind conditions.  If passed, Glazer’s legislation will:

  • Require PG&E to provide back-up battery packs to all customers whose lives would be endangered by an extended, deliberate power outage.
  • Require mobile phone companies to provide at least 72 hours of back-up battery power on their towers.
  • Permit hospitals to run back-up diesel generators for the duration of a planned utility power shut-off even if the governor has not declared a disaster or state of emergency.

Glazer’s legislation will require utilities to do more to help medically vulnerable people survive a planned power outage.

“PG&E is responsible for maintaining a grid that can stay on in a windstorm without risk of causing fires,” Glazer said. “The least they can do is provide emergency power to those whose lives literally depend upon it.”

An extended power outage is literally a life-threatening incident for thousands of the elderly and the disabled. For someone on oxygen, a medication that needs refrigeration, or dependent on an electric wheelchair, losing power can trap them without critical tools they need to stay alive. Additionally, when an evacuation is ordered many disabled and elderly people cannot move or have no place to go. PG&E recently announced a plan to deliver back-up battery packs to some of these customers, yet only about 500 packs are currently available, far fewer than are needed.

During the most recent outages in October, Bay Area residents were stunned to see their cell phone service shut down after cell phone towers lost power and did not have sufficient battery back-up. With more and more people having only mobile phones, not landlines, hundreds of thousands of residents were left without access to emergency services or even information about how long the power would be off.

“With wildfires nearby, many people had no way to know whether they had been advised or ordered to evacuate,” Glazer said. “This is a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”

Further, if passed, Glazer’s legislation will give hospitals the flexibility they need to run diesel-powered back-up generators during an outage. “We need to keep our hospitals up and running at all times,” Glazer said. “They need to know they can run their generators as long as they need to without running the risk of fines or other penalties assessed by air quality regulators.