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Californians Push Back on Safety Power Outages

An older couple sit outside on their deck
Marc Lifsher and his wife Vera relax at their home in Sea Ranch. The couple had their power shut off last year during a nearby wildfire.
Photo by Preston Gannaway

A wildfire was raging several miles away when PG&E cut off the electricity to Marc Lifsher’s home in the Sea Ranch last fall. The shutoff was a precautionary measure to prevent the company’s power lines from sparking more fires.

“It was scary,” said Lifsher, a 71-year-old retired journalist. “We didn’t know exactly when the power was going to be turned off, and the information was very sketchy as to when it would come back on.”

He and his wife, Vera, 67, evacuated because they feared that the wildfire was headed their way and they couldn’t get up-to-date information without power. They drove about 10 miles away, slept in their car, then returned to a darkened house. Four days later, the lights came back on.

“It was like, ‘Hallelujah!’” Lifsher recalled. “We realized then that there is a fine line between civilization and anarchy.”

Hundreds of thousands lost power last year when PG&E greatly expanded its public safety outages after the Camp Fire. That conflagration, ignited by PG&E power lines, killed 85 people in November 2018.

Frequent public safety power outages can have a devastating impact on older adults and those with health problems. AARP California is advocating for several measures to protect residents that may come up in the legislature this year.

When power is critical

“While we have been focused on providing information to our members about the COVID-19 outbreak, we haven’t lost sight of the importance of having basic access to utilities,” said Blanca Castro, AARP California advocacy manager.

“Wildfire season comes every year, and we have learned a lot about what didn’t go right during last year’s fire season.”

PG&E pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Camp Fire and paid $4 million in fines. The utility also reached settlements totaling about $25.5 billion with victims of previous wildfires.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said PG&E and other utility companies “now have a strong financial incentive to err on the side of blackouts, even when they aren’t necessary.”

His bill, which has the support of AARP, would require notification of safety outages as soon as possible and would allow for fines if utilities didn’t act in a reasonable manner, as determined by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Wiener also wants the CPUC to establish a procedure for customers to recover costs caused by a forced safety outage.

AARP California is supporting a proposal that would require utility companies to provide backup battery packs or the funds to buy them to all customers who need power for critical medical equipment and supplies.

Another measure would require utilities to survey customers to accommodate their language and medical needs in notifications about an outage.

Even during a pandemic, AARP California doesn’t want to reduce its efforts on preparing for a range of possible disasters.

“We are not taking our eyes off these issues,” said Castro. “The health and well-being of customers must be front and center when outages are necessary.”

If you want to file a comment on a Public Utilities Commission matter, go to cpuc.ca.gov or email public.advisor@cpuc.ca.gov.

Laura Mecoy is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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