Stephen Ellison

PG&E Starts Power Shutoffs, Seeks $1B Safety Rate Hike

As PG&E announced wildfire safety shutoffs in the Sierra foothills on Monday, one top official with the bankrupt company sought to convince regulators to back a $1 billion rate hike to help counter the long-term fire threat.

“It’s not possible to completely eliminate risk,” PG&E’s chief risk manager, Stephen Cairns, cautioned Monday during his testimony at the state Public Utilities Commission’s San Francisco headquarters.

Cairns was the first official to testify on behalf of the utility’s request to state regulators to authorize $1 billion more in rates over a three-year period, starting next year.

He assured state regulators that the company now is focusing intently on 22 top safety risks, with its distribution grid, transmission system and wildfire in general atop that list.

“We are seeking to achieve the maximum amount of risk reduction, but we are currently unable to optimize that across each risk,” he acknowledged to the two regulatory judges overseeing what is likely to be an extensive hearing over rates.

Dealing with that vulnerability prompted the company to announce later Monday that it was shutting off power to 21,000 customers in Butte, Yuba and Nevada counties to counter the threat of winds pushing down live power lines and sparking wildfires overnight.

But critics were quick to recall the problems that dogged the first use of that shutoff program last year. They question why customers should pay $20 more each month when they are getting more headaches in return.

”This is just heightening the customer’s concern over these rate hikes,’’ said ratepayer advocacy group TURN spokeswoman Mindy Spatt, “because from the customer’s perspective, you’re asking us to pay more, and you give us less. How does that make sense?”

Spatt stressed that any rate increase request should be looked at with skepticism, given PG&E’s track record in failing to identify the risks that led to two disastrous fire seasons with the 2017 North Bay wildfires and last year’s Camp Fire in Butte county.

“Why has their poor, poor risk assessment been allowed to go on?’’ she asked. “And why do customers have to keep paying the price?”

State Sen. Jerry Hill says the shutoff program is proof already the company has not properly dealt with wildfire risks or prioritized safety. That left him skeptical about the latest rate hike plan.

“We certainly want a safe system, but we should have a safe system, and frankly, we have been paying for a safe system for all of these years,” Hill said.

Yet he said he holds out hope the shutoff campaign this year will be effective enough to prove the company has finally learned from its mistakes.

“This next few days will be a major test of the new PG&E,” he said. “I wish them a lot of luck. And I wish all of us a lot of luck.  ... Because we certainly want and expect the system to work better than it has in the past.”

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