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New bill looks to fine utilities that cut power unnecessarily

The damage and loss of life caused by wildfires is a serious concern for most here in California (and, of course, our neighbors across the Pacific in Australia). This has led to some soul searching about the risks, including utilities since the now-bankrupt PG&E and others' power lines were determined to be a significant contributor to the fires over the last decade.

State Senate drafts SB 378

Lawmakers are now drafting Senate Bill 378, which would allow the California Utilities Commission to impose fines on public utilities, and others accrued hourly if a preventative shutoff to avoid causing a fire was deemed unreasonable. The bill would also provide a process for citizens, businesses and local governments to recover financial losses resulting from the planned blackouts.

“Other than through political pressure, the utility does not have to pay any attention to the costs and harms inflicted on people,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. “This is about life and death in a lot of situations.”

While there are the beginnings of such laws on the books, the utilities shut down on several occasions last fall when it was feared that high winds could fan a spark and cause a wildfire. Millions of residents were affected by these outages (which lasted from two to 11 days). Moreover, the Utilities Commission investigated these blackouts, and investors sued the PG&E’s CEO and other top executives after stock prices tumbled.

Critics argued that it was poor planning, due to:

  • Insufficient coordination with local government
  • A failure to create emergency resource centers in affected communities
  • A crashed web site and overwhelmed customer call center unable to provide information
  • False and misleading press releases regarding safety and preparedness

Whats next?

As with many businesses hit with additional expenses due to regulatory compliance, some fear that the utilities will pass the cost of fines and additional overhead to address the law to the customer. Moreover, advocates point out that the utilities are merely trying to avoid another catastrophe. The bill, nevertheless, has made it out of committee. Depending on how SB 378 evolves, this could be an essential new law related to how counties, towns and municipalities deal with preventative blackouts.

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