Tag Archives: wildfires

PG&E’s bankruptcy—what’s happened and what’s next?

The wildfires that erupted in Sonoma County the night of October 8, 2017 signaled a manifest change not just limited to how we must manage risks, but even to the finances of our basic utility services. Forest fires had been distant events that, while expanding in size over the last several decades, had not impacted where people lived and worked. Southern California had experienced several large-scale fires, and the Oakland fire in 1991 had raced through a large city, but no one was truly ready for what happened that night, including Pacific Gas and Electric. Which is why the company eventually declared bankruptcy.

PG&E had already been punished for its poor management of its natural gas pipeline system after an explosion killed nine in San Bruno in 2010. The company was convicted in federal court, fined $3 million and placed on supervised probation under a judge.

PG&E also has extensive transmission and distribution network with more than 100,000 miles of wires. Over a quarter of that network runs through areas with significant wildfire risk. PG&E already had been charged with starting several forest fires, including the Butte fire in 2015, and its vegetation management program had been called out as inadequate by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) since the 1990s. The  CPUC caught PG&E diverting $495 million from maintenance spending to shareholders from 1992 to 1997; PG&E was fined $29 million. Meanwhile, two other utilities, Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) had instituted several management strategies to mitigate wildfire risk (not entirely successful), including turning off “line reclosers” during high winds to avoid short circuits on broken lines that can spark fires. PG&E resisted such steps.

On that October night, when 12 fires erupted, PG&E’s equipment contributed to starting 11 of those, and indirectly at least to other. Over 100,000 acres burned, destroying almost 9,000 buildings and killing 44 people. It was the most destructive fire in history, costing over $14 billion.

But PG&E’s problems were not over. The next year in November 2018, an even bigger fire in Butte County, the Camp fire, caused by a failure of a PG&E transmission line. That one burned over 150,000 acres, killing 85, destroying the community of Paradise and costing $16 billion plus. PG&E now faced legal liabilities of over $30 billion, which exceeds PG&E’s invested capital in its system. PG&E was potentially upside down financially.

The State of California had passed Assembly Bill 1054 that provided a fund of $21 billion to cover excess wildfire costs to utilities (including SCE and SDG&E), but it only covered fires after 2018. The Wine Country and Camp fires were not included, so PG&E faced the question of how to pay for these looming costs. Plus PG&E had an additional problem—federal Judge William Alsup supervising its parole stepped in claiming that these fires were a violation of its parole conditions. The CPUC also launched investigations into PG&E’s safety management and potential restructuring of the firm. PG&E faced legal and regulatory consequences on multiple fronts.

PG&E Corp, the holding company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on January 14, 2019. PG&E had learned from its 2001 bankruptcy proceeding for its utility company subsidiary that moving its legal and regulatory issues into the federal bankruptcy court gave the company much more control over its fate than being in multiple forums. Bankruptcy law afforded the company the ability to force regulators to increase rates to cover the costs authorized through the bankruptcy. And PG&E suffered no real consequences with the 2001 bankruptcy as share prices returned, and even exceeded, pre-filing levels.

As the case progressed, several proposals, some included in legislative bills, were made to take control of PG&E from its shareholders, through a cooperative, a state-owned utility, or splitting it among municipalities. Governor Gavin Newsom even called on Warren Buffet to buy out PG&E. Several localities, including San Francisco, made separate offers to buy their jurisdictions’ grid. The Governor and CPUC made certain demands of PG&E to restructure its management and board of directors, to which PG&E responded in part. PG&E changed its chief executive officer, and its current CEO, Bill Johnson, will resign on June 30. The Governor holds some leverage because he must certify that PG&E has complied by June 30, 2020 with the requirements of Assembly Bill 1054 that authorizes the wildfire cost relief fund for the utilities.

Meanwhile, PG&E implemented a quick fix to its wildfire risk with “public safety power shutoffs” (PSPS), with its first test in October 2019, which did not fare well. PG&E was accused of being excessive in the number of customers (over 800,000) and duration and failing to coordinate adequately with local governments. A subsequent PSPS event went more smoothly, but still had significant problems. PG&E says that such PSPS events will continue for the next decade until it has sufficiently “hardened” its system to mitigate the fire risk. Such mitigation includes putting power lines underground, changing system configuration and installing “microgrids” that can be isolated and self sufficient for short durations. That program likely will cost tens of billions of dollars, potentially increasing rates as much as 50 percent. One question will be who should pay—all ratepayers or those who are being protected in rural areas?

PG&E negotiated several pieces of a settlement, coming to agreements with hedge-fund investors, debt holders, insurance companies that pay for wildfire losses by residents and businesses, and fire victims. The victims are to be paid with a mix of cash and stock, with a face value of $13.5 billion; the victims are voting on whether to accept this agreement as this article is being written. Local governments will receive $1 billion, and insurance companies $11 billion, for a total of $24.5 billion in payouts.  PG&E has lined up $20 billion in outside financing to cover these costs. The total package is expected to raise $58 billion.

The CPUC voted May 28 to approve PG&E’s bankruptcy plan, along with a proposed fine of $2 billion. PG&E would not be able to recover the costs for the 2017 and 2018 fires from ratepayers under the proposed order. The Governor has signaled that he is likely to also approve PG&E’s plan before the June 30 deadline.

PG&E is still asking for significant rate increases to both underwrite the AB 1054 wildfire protection fund and to implement various wildfire mitigation efforts. PG&E has asked for a $900 million interim rate increase for wildfire management efforts and a settlement agreement in its 2020 general rate case calls for another $575 million annual ongoing increase (with larger amounts to be added in the next three years). These amount to a more than 10 percent increase in rates for the coming year, on top of other rate increases for other investments.

And PG&E still faces various legal difficulties. The utility pleaded guilty to 85 chargesof manslaughter in the Camp fire, making the company a two-time felon. The federal judge overseeing the San Bruno case has repeatedly found PG&E’s vegetation management program wanting over the last two years and is considering remedial actions.

Going forward, PG&E’s rates are likely to rise dramatically over the next five years to finance fixes to its system. Until that effort is effective, PSPS events will be widespread, maybe for a decade. On top of that is that electricity demand has dropped precipitously due to the coronavirus pandemic shelter in place orders, which is likely to translate into higher rates as costs are spread over a smaller amount of usage.

Is PG&E really a “recidivist felon”?

TURN, the residential ratepayer intervenor group, submitted a comment letter to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) bankruptcy investigation proceeding (I.19-09-016). TURN has some harsh statements asking for denial of recovery of some large expenses, including wildfire victim payments and legal fees. One particular passage caught my attention:

The stark truth is that PG&E is a recidivist felon that has caused multiple
major catastrophes within the space of a decade.

I looked up the definition on Wikipedia. (There are other definitions that differ some.)

Recidivism is the act of a person repeating an undesirable behavior after they have either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or have been trained to extinguish that behavior. It is also used to refer to the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense.

But does “recidivist” apply in this situation for this reason: Has PG&E really suffered negative consequences from its previous behavior? So far, despite being convicted of felonies twice in the last decade, PG&E has been fined a total of $6.5 million for the San Bruno gas line explosion and the Camp Fire, which is equal to just over 4 hours of revenues for PG&E, and no one has gone to prison. PG&E continues to hold its franchise with few restrictions over most of northern California, and it appears headed for exiting bankruptcy by June 30 with a favorable finance plan in which current shareholders still hold most of the equity. It’s also not obvious how PG&E has been “trained” to extinguish its behavior, although the CPUC has instituted more oversight.

So, it’s not clear where and how PG&E has suffered significant negative consequences for its criminal acts, unless you consider “flea bites” as real punishment.  To the contrary, PG&E has turned each of these events into money making enterprises.  The first was by catching up on its deferred natural gas pipeline maintenance that it should have been spending on for decades. Instead, the CPUC could have simply ordered that the deferred spending be taken from past revenues. The second is the added investment of billions in hardening the rural distribution system and setting up back up generation in danger areas. That will add hundreds of millions or even a couple billion to annual revenues, all delivering a 10%+ return to company shareholders. Instead of negative consequences, PG&E has been able to turn these convictions into positive financial gains for its investors.

Public takeover of PG&E isn’t going to solve every problem

This article in the Los Angeles Times about what a public takeover of PG&E appears to take on uses the premise that such a step would lead to lower costs, more efficiencies and reduced wildfire risks. These expectations have never been realistic, and shouldn’t be the motivation for such an action. Instead, a public takeover would offer these benefits and opportunities:

  • While the direct costs of constructing and repairing the grid would likely be about the same (and PG&E has some of the highest labor costs around), the cost to borrow and invest the needed funds would be as much as 30% less. That’s because PG&E weighted average cost of capital (debt and shareholder equity) is around 8% per annum while muncipal debt is 5% or less.
  • Ratepayers are already repaying shareholders and creditors for their investments in the utility system. Buying PG&E’s system would simply be replacing those payments with payments to creditors that hold public bonds. Similar to the cost of fixing the grid, this purchase should reduce the annual cost to repay that debt by 30%.
  • And along these lines, utility shareholders have borne little of the costs from these types of risks. Shareholders supposedly get a premium on their investment returns for these “risks” but when asked for examples of large scale disallowances, none of the utilities could provide significant examples. If ratepayers are already bearing all of those risks, then they should get all of the investment benefits as well.
  • Direct public oversight will eliminate a layer of regulation that PG&E has used to impede effective oversight and deflect responsibility. To some extent regulation by the California Public Utilities Commission has been like pushing on a string, with PG&E doing what it wants by “interpreting” CPUC decisions. The result has been a series of missteps by the utility over many decades.
  • A new utility structure may provide an opportunity to renegotiate a number of overly lucrative renewable power purchase agreements that PG&E signed between 2010 and 2015. PG&E failed to properly manage the risk profile of its portfolio because under state law it could pass through all costs of those PPAs once approved by the CPUC. PG&E’s shareholders bore no risk, so why consider that risk? There are several possible options to addressing this issue, but PG&E has little incentive to act.
  • A publicly-owned utility can work more closely with local governments to facilitate the evolution of the energy system to meet climate change challenges. As a private entity with restrictions on how it can participate in customer-side energy management, PG&E cannot work hand-in-glove with cities and counties on building and transportation transformation. PG&E right now has strong incentives to prevent further defections away from its grid; public utilities are more likely to accept these defections with the possibility that the stranded asset costs will be socialized.

The risks of wildfire damages and liabilities are unlikely to change substantially (except if the last point accelerates distributed energy resource investment). But the other benefits and opportunities are likely to make these costs lower.

Non-Profit Utilities Could Cure What Ails California Electricity

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Severin Borenstein at the Energy Institute at Haas, asks “Would Non-Profit Utilities Cure What Ails California Electricity?” I am posting my response here as that I find his post overlooks several important points and distinctions.

I’ll start by saying I wrote an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee in the early 2000s noting that creating a new municipal utility was not going to deliver the same low rates as existing munis and I’m still aware that such a transfer is unlikely to reduce rates much. But it does change the governance structure in a way that is likely to be more accountable and less influenced by the private interests of utility shareholders. Communities are joining together to push for acquisition of PG&E by a cooperative, which would have a similar governance structure to a municipal utility.

First, the complaint about government is largely about agencies that I will call “ministerial” or “administrative”. These agencies issue permits and licenses or provide social services. In contrast, the government agencies that deliver utility services, which are “enterprises” largely deliver service with few complaints. About 80% of water utilities and almost all wastewater utilities are publicly owned. I work in the water arena as well, and the only utility that I hear complaints about from customers is LADWP (both water and power sides). (The SDCWA-MWD fight is between agencies’ managements, not from customers). On the other hand, all three or California’s electric IOUs are the target of customers’ ire. And the IOU staffs (which I have frequent contact with) are no better than government employees in their responsiveness or competence. One advantage the enterprise agencies have over the ministerial/administrative ones is that they generally pay a higher salary so employees are motivated in much the same way as those in the private sector. Moving from oversight by a ministerial/administrative agency (CPUC) to management by an enterprise utility should overcome the problem of recruiting competent motivated staff.

Second, shareholders shoulder very little risk now, particularly in California. I testified in the IOUs’ rate of return case and we asked for the amount of disallowances that shareholders had to bear over the last two decades. Other than SDG&E’s 2007 wildfire costs due to negligence on the utility’s part, they came pack with amounts that were in the tens of millions, which amounts to less than a 0.1% of their revenues collected over that period. Utilities’ generation investment is now so protected that the CPUC reversed itself last year and removed the 10 year recovery cap from exit fees for generation that the utilities built knowing the cap existed. They are now getting bonus dollars! (Same thing happened with Diablo Canyon in 1996.) Yet the utilities are claiming in that rate case that the return on equity should be increased even further! I have a blog post about how the current return is already too high. (Part 2 is the next day.)  Public ownership in contrast can reduce the return on capital from close to 10% (before tax) to 5% or less, which can cut rates substantially.

We can see how PG&E in particular has been incompetently managed for decades. I posted about its many foibles since the 1960s as well. The supposed incentives and efficiencies of the private sector have failed to materialize for California utilities, and meanwhile we pay higher costs for capital with no real risk mitigation. (Ratepayers still had to pay for PG&E’s debts after the 2000-01 energy crisis, and it looks like the same may happen again.)

Finally, the question arises as to whether municipalizing piecemeal would create inequities. The premise of the statement is that the current economic distribution is equitable. But the fact is that rural residential customers in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) have not been paying their full share of their costs and have been heavily subsidized by urban customers. Those customers in the WUI tend to be better off than average (poor rural customers are more likely to live in agricultural communities that are not subject to the same fire risks and for whom service costs are lower), so we already have an adverse wealth transfer in place. And those subsidies have facilitated expansion of housing into those high risk areas that also encourage longer commutes with more GHG emissions.

The better question is how can the rural service areas be better served in the future without relying on the traditional utility structure? Moving toward microgrids and other DER solutions to improve reliability while reducing fire risk is one solution. Spending a $100 billion on undergrounding lines to be paid for by everyone else is NOT a good solution.

Should California just buy PG&E?

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Governor Gavin Newsom asked Warren Buffet to use Berkshire-Hathaway to buy PG&E. Berkshire-Hathaway has been acquiring utilities throughout the West including PacifiCorp and Nevada Power. However, other than deep pockets, it’s not clear what Buffet has to offer in this situation.

PG&E’s stock fell as low as $3.80 per share on Tuesday, closing at $5.03. The total market value, including the natural gas utility, is now $2.66 billion. The invested book value on the other hand is about $26 billion.

Not sure why California doesn’t just buy the company for, say, $5B instead of appealing to an out of state private owner. Several state legislators, including a key state senator, Bill Dodd, have expressed support for some sort of state acquisition. Then the state can either parse it out to public utilities, set up a cooperative or bid out the franchises to multiple operators or owners. Ratepayers/taxpayers will have to pay most of the wildfire liabilities anyway, so why not remove the high-cost (and apparently incompetent) middleman?

PG&E hijacks its own website

PG&E PSPS website clip

I was looking for PG&E’s 2019 Catastrophic Events Memo Account (CEMA) on its website at https://www.pge.com/en_US/about-pge/company-information/regulation/regulation.page, and instead I was redirected to PG&E’s PSPS website at https://www.pgealerts.com/. It does not appear possible to get around this website to the regulatory filings that PG&E maintains on its website.

I guess that’s one way to get enough bandwidth after crashing its website during the PSPS blackouts.

PG&E apologizes, yet again

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(Image: ABC 7 News)

I listened to PG&E’s CEO Bill Johnson and his staff apologize for its mishandling of the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) that affected over 700,000 “customers” (what other industry calls meters “customers”?) yesterday. And as I listened, I thought of the many times that PG&E has fumbled (or even acted maliciously) over the years. Here’s my partial list (and I’m leaving out the faux pas that I’ve experienced in regulatory proceedings):

  • Failing to turn off power locally in 2017 and 2018 under hazardous weather conditions, which led to the Wine Country and Camp fires.
  • Failing to install distribution shut off equipment that was installed by San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison after the 2007 wildfires in Southern  California.
  • Signing too many power purchase agreements with renewables in the 2009 to 2014 period that were for too long of terms (e.g., 20 years instead of 10 years). PG&E is unable to take advantage of the dramatic cost decreases created by California’s bold investments. For a comparison, PG&E’s renewable portfolio costs about 20% more than SCE’s. (I am one of a few that has access to the confidential portfolio data for both utilities.)
  • Failing to act on the opportunity to sell part of its overstuffed renewable portfolio to the CCAs that emerged from 2010 to 2016. Those sales could have benefited everyone by decreasing PG&E’s obligations and providing the CCAs with existing firm resources. That opportunity has now largely passed.
  • The gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 caused by PG&E’s failure to keep proper records for decades. PG&E was convicted of a felony for its negligence.
  • Overinvesting in obsolete distribution infrastructure after 2009 by failing to recognize that electricity demand had flattened and that customers were switching en masse to solar rooftops. (I repeatedly filed testimony starting in 2010 pointing out this error.)
  • Deploying an Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) system starting in 2004 using SmartMeters that claimed that it would provide much more control of PG&E’s distribution system, and deliver positive benefits to ratepayers. Savings have largely failed to materialize, and PG&E’s inability to use its AMI to more narrowly target its PSPS illustrates how AMI has failed to deliver.
  • Acquiring and building three unneeded natural gas plants starting in 2006. Several merchant-owned plants constructed in the early 2000s are already on the verge of retiring because of the flattening in demand.
  • Failing to act in May 2000 to end the “competitive transition” period of California’s restructuring by agreeing to the market valuation of its hydropower system.
  • If PG&E had ended the transition period, it would have been immediately free to sign longer term contracts with merchant generators, thereby taking away the incentive for those generators to manipulate the market. The subsequent energy crisis most likely would have not occurred, or been much more isolated to Southern California.
  • PG&E’s CEO in 1998 made a speech to the shareholders stating that it was PG&E’s intent to extend the transition period as far as possible, to March 2001 at least. (We cited this speech from a transcript in the 1999 GRC case.)
  • Offering rebuttal in the 1999 GRC that instead confirmed the ORA’s analysis that the optimal size of a utility is closer to 500,000 customers rather than 4 million plus. Commissioner Bilas wrote a draft decision confirming this finding, but restructuring derailed the vote on the case.
  • Being caught by the CPUC in diverting $495 million from maintenance spending to shareholders from 1992 to 1997. PG&E was fined $29 million.
  • Forcing the CPUC in 1996 to adopt the “competitive transition charge” which was tied to the fluctuating CAISO day-ahead market price instead of using Commissioner Knight’s up front pay out for stranded assets. The CTC led to the “transition period” which facilitated the ability of merchant generators to manipulate the market price.
  • Two settlement agreements allow PG&E to fully recover its costs in Diablo Canyon by January 1, 1998 based on its authorized rate of return from 1986 to 1998, but also allows it to put into ratebase about half of its “remaining” construction costs as a prelude to restructuring.
  • Getting caught in 1990 telling FERC that PG&E was short resources and needed to build more, while telling the CPUC that it had a long term surplus and that it needed to curtail its payments to third-party qualifying facilities (QF) generators.
  • In the early 1980s, failing to set up a rationale process for signing QF contracts that limited the addition of these resources. In addition, PG&E missed an important pricing calculation mistake in the capacity payment term that led to a double payment to QFs.
  • In the 1970s, making many construction management mistakes when building the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, including reversing the blueprints, that led to the costs rising from $315 million to over $5 billion. (And Diablo Canyon in 3 of the last 5 years has operated at a loss and should not have been generating for several months each of those years.)
  • In the 1960s, signing an agreement with Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to finance the construction of the Rancho Seco nuclear plant that essentially gave SMUD free energy when Rancho Seco wasn’t generating. The result was the mismanagement of the plant, which was so damaged that it was closed in 1989 (in part as a result of analysis conducted by the consulting team that I was on.)

The other two California IOUs are guilty of some of these same errors, and SMUD and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) also do not have a clean bill of health, but the quantities and magnitudes to don’t match those of PG&E.

CPUC proposes radical restructuring of PG&E

104778251-gettyimages-861000956In PG&E’s safety order institution investigation (OII), outgoing CPUC President Michael Picker (along with senior administrative law judge Peter Allen) has put on the table four dramatic proposals to address governance and incentive issues at the utility. These proposals are:

  1. Separating PG&E into separate gas and electric utilities or selling the gas assets;
  2. Establishing periodic review of PG&E’s Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CPCN);
  3. Modification or elimination of PG&E Corp.’s holding company structure; and
  4. Linking PG&E’s rate of return or return on equity to safety performance metrics.

The OII originally was opened to investigate PG&E’s management of its natural gas infrastructure, but the series of electricity-sparked wildfires reinfused the OII with a new direction. The proceeding has been a forum for various dramatic proposals on how to handle wildfire-related issues and PG&E’s subsequent bankruptcy filing.

 

PG&E fails to provide safety support in Davis

This article on a local webnews site, the Davis Vanguard, describes how PG&E was slow to respond and has since failed to communicate with homeowners about subsequent measures to be taken. Note that in this case, the power lines run down an easement through the backyards of these houses. 

What should strict liability look like for wildfire costs?

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Governor Newsom, the Assembly Speaker and Senate Pro Tem have publicly opposed eliminating the strict liability doctrine applicable to utilities for allocating responsibility for wildfire costs.

Maintaining inverse condemnation better assures wildfire victims that they will receive at least some compensation for their damages. However, there needs to be a limit on the types of damages that can be collected if the utilities are allowed to pass through those costs to ratepayers will little review.

Punitive damages are intended to incent the bad actor to fix the problem. But if that bad actor–the electric utility in this case–is shielded from most or all of the punitive damages, then they will have no incentive to change their behavior. Why should they if what they are doing now is costless?

Only if utility shareholders must bear 100% of all punitive damages and the proportion of damages attributable to negligence should the remaining costs be passed through to ratepayers in this situation. Only in this way can California derive the benefits of privately-owned utilities. If these conditions are unacceptable to shareholders, then the only alternative is public ownership so that ratepayers can reap both the benefits and risks of asset ownership.