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PUC to Investigate Power Shutoffs

You might say it’s better late than never, but the normally inert California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) finally took some positive action this Wednesday, Nov. 13, when they voted unanimously to order an investigation into the planned blackouts by PG&E and other utilities that left millions without electricity over a series of power shutoffs in October.

The PUC voted 5-0 to initiate “an investigation into whether California’s investor-owned electric utilities prioritized safety and complied with the Commission’s regulations and requirements with respect to their late 2019 Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events,” according to a PUC statement.

The inquiry will “investigate whether California’s investor owned utilities’ actions to de-energize their electric facilities during hazardous weather conditions properly balance the need to provide reliable service with public safety.”

“It is important for the CPUC to determine if the utilities complied with using Public Safety Power Shut-offs as a last resort, and to collect the knowledge gained towards any revisions needed for next year,” said Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma. “It is essential that our protocols and the utilities’ practices provide the best service and protections for customers in the face of wildfires.”

The investor-owned utilities include PG&E, which shut off power for hundreds of thousands of homes and business during four distinct, massive-scale outage events in October, as well as Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

The vote allows the historically lax regulatory commission to formally proceed with an investigation ordered by PUC President Marybel Batjer. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed Batjer to her position in July, has also called for the PUC to investigate the planned blackouts by investor-owned utilities like PG&E.

The formal investigation (called an Order Instituting Investigation) will assess whether the state’s investor-owned electric utilities properly balanced the need to provide safe and reliable service when planning and executing their recent PSPS events. In the first phase of the proceeding, the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division will oversee an evaluation of the utilities’ actions prior to, during, and after the PSPS events that occurred in late 2019. The evaluation will include the quality of the utilities’ internal coordination, situational awareness, external communication, and pre-planning and execution for the PSPS events. The results of the Safety and Enforcement Division’s investigation will be presented in a public report.

The “D” Word

So here’s the latest weather outlook, and it’s not positive.

According to the Drought Monitor, just three months ago 4.32% of California was listed as abnormally dry. Now almost one-fifth of California is either abnormally dry or in moderate drought, as of the end of October. It’s abnormally dry in portions of the eastern part of the state south of Lake Tahoe, and in the central Sierra.

The Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service says that a “drought development is likely” for most of Northern California and the Central Valley, not to mention the southern half of the state.

In a L.A Times story this week, Bill Patzert, a retired climatologist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said drought is all in your definition. Although the reservoirs are generally pretty full, he says he looks at conditions in the wildlands and forests, and after almost no rain for the last seven months, “It’s not just dry, it’s incendiary.”

Falls are likely to be drier because of climate change, Patzert said. And we’re undoubtedly warmer than the average for the last 30 years, but a lot of that is due to suburban sprawl and the urban heat island, he said.

Forecasts for November are predicting warmer-than-normal weather in all of California, and drier-than-normal conditions in most of Northern and Central California. It is the northern Sierra Nevada that serves as a water bank for the state, where snow piles up at high elevations through the winter, then gradually melts and replenishes the state’s reservoirs as warmer weather arrives in the high country with the spring and summer months.

This natural storage system can be thrown badly out of whack if warm storms drop rain at high elevations, causing the snowpack to melt too quickly and pose a risk of flooding.

According to the National Weather Service, both El Niño and La Niña rain events are stuck in neutral.

When you combine all of the predictions for a drier — perhaps a much drier — late fall-early winter with high risk threat fire conditions, you don’t need a crystal ball to see more PSPS events in the near future.

And that is not good news.

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

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