‘Really important’: CA Gov. Gavin Newsom signs bill to make PG&E safer

Power lines aligned down the streets of Berkeley.
Maya Elbaz/File
PG&E power lines run through the streets of Berkeley.

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On June 30, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 350, a bill that will hold PG&E to higher safety standards.

The bill sets up a group of strong measures that the California Public Utilities Commission may trigger at its discretion, according to David Wooley, executive director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy and visiting professor at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. Among other things, SB 350 authorizes Golden State Energy, a nonprofit public benefit corporation, to take over electric and gas services for PG&E’s customers if the company fails to adhere to certain commission measures, according to its text.

SB 350 is the result of policymakers’ frustration with frequent “major safety problems” associated with PG&E systems, according to Wooley. Large disasters on gas lines and wildfires connected to the company’s transmission and distribution systems caused enormous costs for the state, its citizens and other institutions, Wooley added.

Other utilities around the country in similar geographic environments have not had comparable safety problems to PG&E’s, according to Wooley. He added that the bill is an attempt to make sure such emergencies are prevented in the future.

Wooley added that the bill is “really important.”

“It’ll take a number of years to reverse the safety problems associated with this very large transmission and distribution system,” Wooley said. “The main thing that this bill does is it makes safety an existential issue for PG&E.”

According to Wooley, over time, the bill will cause the company to reduce the risks of wildfire being caused by its systems. PG&E is already working to improve the safety of its transmission system, Wooley added.

The culture and management at PG&E has also begun to change, Wooley said. The company appointed a new board of directors June 10 and plans to make investments in both safety and wildfire mitigation, according to PG&E spokesperson James Noonan.

The company has worked with California leadership to refine its reorganization plan, according to Noonan. Noonan added that PG&E will work to realize California’s climate goals as well as provide fair compensation to the victims of recent wildfires.

“We intend to meet our safety and operational commitments to California and our customers and, ultimately, render this legislation unnecessary,” Noonan said in an email.

Contact Vani Suresh at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_.