North state lawmakers announce legislation to combat power shutoffs

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North State lawmakers, Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, announced their intent last week to introduce legislation that will help prevent future wildfires and public safety power shutoffs by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. 

The lawmakers are authoring legislation to direct additional funding into utility infrastructure upgrades and forest fuel reduction projects, two of the leading factors in catastrophic wildfires and cited by PG&E in declaring power shutoff events.

PG&E is currently spending roughly $2.4 billion annually to uphold a legislative mandate to buy renewable power, Gallagher said, in a press release. At the same time, the company spent only $1.5 billion to update its century old infrastructure in 2017. 

A century-old transmission tower was cited as the ignition source of the Camp Fire, and a utility tower reportedly may also be the source of the Kincade Fire, currently burning in Sonoma.

The legislation by Nielsen and Gallagher will temporarily pause the state’s renewable power mandates until infrastructure and vegetation management conditions are improved. 

The legislation will require that savings from this temporary relief may only be used by Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) to harden the grid and reduce forest fuels. Also during this time, executive compensation at IOUs would be frozen and any proposed bonuses shall be put on hold.

“PG&E needs to get back to the basics of providing safe and reliable power,” said Gallagher, in a statement. “There is no doubt that PG&E’s mismanagement is the primary culprit in these devastating fires and public safety power shutoff events. But policies coming out of the State Capitol that distract from these primary objectives only make matters worse.”

Nielsen called the legislation a common-sense approach to help end power shutoff events and reduce fire risk. 

“We are not waiting 10 years,” Nielsen said. “No more power shutoffs. It needs to happen now. Millions without electricity is what a third world country looks like, not a state that is the 5th largest economy in the world.”

California IOUs have already met their goals of reaching 33 percent renewable solar and wind energy and PG&E is already producing 85 percent of its power from renewable and carbon-free sources. 

The lawmakers noted that every dollar spent on the additional cost of renewable energy is $1 that is not available to be spent on vegetation management, line insulation, undergrounding, and other grid-hardening measures.

“Dollars spent on forestry management have been found to do more to reduce carbon than other measures,” added Gallagher. “Science shows that redirecting funding to forestry management gets us a better bang for our buck in carbon reduction.”

The lawmakers will also be introducing a joint resolution that will urge the federal bankruptcy court to rescind PG&E’s current high-cost renewable energy contracts. Reports show that some of PG&E’s pre-2012 solar contracts now cost the company an added $2.2 billion per year due to outdated above-market prices. 

These contracts could be voided in the bankruptcy to allow PG&E to buy the same renewable power at a lower price, the lawmakers said, adding that savings from renegotiating these bloated contracts could be used to invest in projects that reduce fire danger and future blackout events.

“Bankruptcy is typically a place to get out of bad contracts,” Nielsen said. “Victims and ratepayers must be the priority. Our legislation is another opportunity to get back to the basics of providing safe and reliable power.”

The North State lawmakers noted that California is moving backward on its carbon reduction due to recent wildfires. Last year’s fires generated 45 million metric tons of carbon, more than nine times California’s combined reductions achieved in 2016 and 2017.

“California must get smarter about its climate goals,” Gallagher concluded. “Century-old infrastructure, tinderbox forests, and public safety power shutoff events are unacceptable. Renewable energy mandates that take away from addressing these issues while fires continue to burn are intolerable. With our plan, we can do better on carbon reduction and combating catastrophic fire,” 

Nielsen and Gallagher will formally introduce the legislation when the California Legislature reconvenes in January. ■