Over the past few years, the State of California has endured some of the worst fire seasons on record. In 2020, over one million acres burned across the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California, and the Central San Joaquin Valley—conditions which created a public safety and health emergency in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. In 2019, the Kincade Fire set ablaze nearly 78,000 acres in Northern California, but coincided with widespread power shutoffs impacting millions of customers throughout the state. In 2018, we learned of the devastation in Butte County, where the Camp Fire destroyed the community of Paradise, California, and claimed the lives of eighty-six people. To confront wildfire threats of such magnitude, the three largest energy providers in California—Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric—have executed Public Safety Power Shutoffs (de-energization) as one response to mitigate public safety concerns. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) oversees all utilities operating within the state. The CPUC authorizes PG&E, SCE, SDG&E, and all other intrastate utilities to de-energize their power lines, but only as a measure of last resort when dangerous fire conditions present an imminent threat to public safety. While de-energization serves as a useful tool, it equally carries the potential for abuse. PG&E stands as a notable example. The CPUC evaluates de-energization execution for reasonableness but does not inquire into other critical areas of relevant information: the condition of electrical infrastructure, utility infrastructure repairs or investments performed, or the financial status of the de- energizing utility. To ensure utilities remain committed to their regulatory duties of promoting public safety by delivering safe and reliable power to the public, this Note recommends the CPUC incorporate an infrastructure investment inquiry into its de-energization reasonableness review. As our electrical grid deteriorates, environmental conditions worsen, and PG&E (the largest of the three utility providers in California) emerges from bankruptcy, the danger of de-energization becoming a general utility wildfire response continues to increase. Without closer utility infrastructure scrutiny public safety stands at risk—and at the whim of utility discretion.
Murillo II, Robert,
A (Dangerous) New Normal—Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS): A Look into California Utility De-energization Authority and the Potential for its Abuse,
61 Santa Clara L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol61/iss2/6