Wild Tree Foundation’s April Maurath Sommer joined host Larry Mantle on NPR’s Air Talk to discuss PG&E’s outrageous idea of undergrounding 10,000 miles of power lines. Listen here
“Multiple ratepayer and environmental groups, however, lambasted the plan for its rising costs and the seemingly plodding pace for such a critical project.
“In an ideal world, I would love to see their entire system underground – their plan is just not realistic,” said April Maurath Sommer, executive director of the Wild Tree Foundation, an environmentally-focused group based in the Bay Area. “That’s the concern from an environmental point of view and from a safety point of view, with PG&E’s plan to focus on undergrounding, is it’s too expensive and it’s too slow.”
She instead advocated for the utility provider to install covered conductors – essentially, a plastic covering over its wires – that, she said, can significantly reduce the risk of wildfires at a fraction of the cost of undergrounding. Sommer cited a Southern California Edison estimate of $551,000 a mile to install covered conductors, though PG&E has stated that such a move would easily cost nearly three times as much for its system.
“The focus needs to be on doing things as quickly as possible and as safely as possible,” Maurath Sommer said. “Undergrounding is just not realistic.””
-The Mercury News, PG&E plan to bury power lines gets price tag; who will foot the bill? (February 11, 2022) read more
“Some stakeholders have broader concerns about PG&E’s strategies for preventing fires in its service area. April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, noted that the utility has scaled back the number of miles of power lines it intends to “harden” through a combination of transferring equipment underground, installing covered power lines and building stronger poles.
In 2020, PG&E aimed to harden 220 miles of its system, and completed approximately 342 total miles. This year, however, the utility adopted a new wildfire modeling tool that has changed its thinking around system hardening, according to its latest fire mitigation plan, and it is only targeting 180 miles. That 180 miles, however, represents greater risk reduction than its previous plan, the utility said.
Instead of system hardening, PG&E has ‘continued with their main focus being on vegetation management,’ Maurath Sommer said. ‘Unfortunately, it’s been demonstrated over and over again that they just can’t seem to get vegetation management right … so this is not new,’ she said.”
-Utility Dive, PG&E equipment may be linked with another Northern California wildfire, utility reports (July 20, 2021) read more
“The Utility Reform Network (Turn) ratepayer advocacy group and the Wild Tree Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, will also appeal the approval of PG&E’s financing order setting the bond parameters.
Turn and Wild Tree claim PG&E is disqualified from securitization because its bankruptcy reorganization plan approved last June forbids forcing ratepayers to pick up the costs. They argue that the bond issuance will drive up utility bills and fail to help PG&E attain investment-grade status in order to lower its borrowing costs, which is required under the securitization statute.
‘Already suffering some of the highest utility rates in the country, ratepayers should not be further burdened by costs incurred as a direct result of PG&E’s neglect and mismanagement,’ said April Rose Maurath Sommer, Wild Tree executive director.
Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, SB 901’s author, essentially agrees. In an interview last week, Dodd said he is concerned that PG&E has not met the criteria for financing under SB 901 and PG&E’s own bankruptcy settlement, which requires a finding that the relief is just and reasonable and remains ratepayer-neutral — in other words, that it does not raise rates.
SB 901 does not specifically bar a utility from using the mechanism to address wildfire liability, but PG&E’s pursuit of it ‘defies the spirit of the law,’ Dodd said.”
-Canary Media, PG&E’s $7.5B securitization: A bellwether for utility efforts to cover the costs of climate change? (May 11, 2021) read more
“TURN, the Wild Tree Foundation and City and County of San Francisco are challenging the CPUC’s and PG&E’s statutory interpretation, seeking a rehearing of the earlier ruling on grounds it will increase rates. TURN and Wild Tree also will request a rehearing of the May 6 approval.
‘Already suffering some of the highest utility rates in the country, ratepayers should not be further burdened by costs incurred as a direct result of PG&E’s neglect and mismanagement,’ April Rose Maurath Sommer, Wild Tree executive director, said.”
-California Currents, Unprecedented PG&E Ratepayer Bond Gets Final Okay (May 6, 2021) read more
“If that money is not freed up, or if things don’t go as planned for PG&E, ratepayers won’t be reimbursed for the rate increases they’ll see due to the bonds, April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, said.
On the other hand, if the trust has surplus money, the commission’s proposal would have PG&E distribute at least 25% of that to customers, with the rest going to shareholders, Maurath Sommer said, ‘which is morally reprehensible.’
Most securitizations in the country apply to costs that ratepayers would have been on the hook for anyway, according to Maurath Sommer.
But ‘if this bond is denied, as it should be, ratepayers will pay nothing, because they should not have to pay for the costs of damages they themselves have suffered,’ she added, noting that people who lost their homes and families in the wildfires are also PG&E ratepayers.”
-Utility Dive, California tees up proposals to securitize $7.5B in PG&E wildfire costs (April 7, 2021) read more
“Some stakeholders, however, remain concerned about how effective the plans will be. One of the most cost-effective and efficient approaches to reducing wildfire risk is system hardening, said April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation. System hardening includes a combination of switching out bare conductors with covered conductors, installing stronger poles and undergrounding portions of power lines. In 2020, PG&E hardened 342 miles of powerlines. This year, however, the utility is aiming to complete 180.
‘What we would want to see is PG&E ramping up and doing more and more — instead, they actually are doing less,” Maurath Sommer said, adding that the utility’s plan to complete between 450 and 500 miles of system hardening per year by 2024 and after is “still a drop in the bucket.'”
-Utility Dive, California IOUs plan to spend $11B on wildfire prevention in 2021 and 2022 after record-breaking fire season (February 9, 2021) read more
“Focusing on tree trimming and preemptive power shut-offs is a fundamentally flawed approach, said April Rose Maurath Sommer, the executive and legal director of Wild Tree Foundation.
‘Their focus continues to be, as far as I can tell, what are the two least-effective techniques for decreasing wildfire ignitions from utility infrastucture,’ Sommer said. More effective and cheaper would be using “covered conductors,” or covering bare wires with plastic she added.
About 171 miles of high-risk wires and equipment were “hardened” in 2019 by putting them underground or adding insulation, the report said. The company plans to complete another 180 miles this year.
Sommer said the progress was far too slow to make a difference.”
-San Francisco Chronicle, This is how PG&E says it will try to prevent wildfires in 2021 (February 5, 2021) read more
“Some stakeholders, however, remained critical of the certification, and questioned why the division granted PG&E the certification while also detailing problems with its wildfire mitigation processes.
“To me, this feels like a 16-year-old going to get their first drivers test and the DMV says, well, during the test you ran a red light and made an illegal U-turn and you probably hit and killed four pedestrians — but here’s your drivers license anyway,” April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, said.
The issuance of the safety certification is conditioned on PG&E having an approved wildfire mitigation plan — but the process for approving that plan has been changed from one where the public had the opportunity to get involved to a more ministerial function, Maurath Sommer said.
“So there’s not an opportunity for legitimate, meaningful involvement by the public in the approval of the [plans] and that becomes the basis for the safety certification,” she added.”
-Utility Dive, CPUC safety certification eases PG&E access to wildfire insurance fund, prompting backlash (January 20, 2021) read more
California Current, PG&E’s $7.5B Ratepayer Bond Would Assume Shareholder Debt (Nov. 10, 2020) read more
California Current: SCE $337M Ratepayer-Funded Bond Approved (Nov. 5, 2020) read more
“If Judge Jungreis’ Oct. 16 proposed decision is approved by the CPUC, “it will take the only sensible pathway to meeting the quick turnaround time required,” by AB 1054 and the “substantive requirement that ratepayer costs be minimized by retaining oversight over the terms of the bonds following approval of a financing order,” April Rose Maurath Sommer, Executive & Legal Director of intervenor Wild Tree Foundation, told Current.”
California Current, CPUC Judge Adds Ratepayer Protections to $337M SCE Bond (October 20, 2020) read more
“Stakeholders in California have raised concerns that the company is still exposed to the risk of wildfires in its service territory. PG&E plans to “harden” around 7,000 miles of its power lines in the next 12 to 14 years, April Rose Maurath Sommer, the Wild Tree Foundation’s executive and legal director, told Utility Dive in early July — out of more than 30,000 miles of lines located in parts of California prone to wildfires.”
-Utility Dive: PG&E faces soaring insurance costs, leadership changes in rest of 2020 (July 31, 2020) read more
“Maurath Sommer says, there are still many unknowns about how the fund will function and how far it will go — for instance, what happens if there are multiple fires at one point and the fund is depleted, as well as who gets first draw.
“I find it impossible to believe there’s not going to be more utility-caused fires,” she said, adding, “There’s a very likely possibility that the fund could be depleted, and there’s no contingency for that.””
-Utility Dive, PG&E exits bankruptcy, but long-term wildfire risk could put it ‘back in the soup’ (July 6, 2020) read more
“”The stress test was created by the legislature in SB 901, I think in an attempt to basically prevent the utilities from going into bankruptcy, and PG&E made the elective and fully voluntary choice to file for bankruptcy, undermining the entire purpose of this ratepayer funded bailout,” she said.”
-Utility Dive, PG&E foresees $600M or greater loss for Kincade Fire, files to securitize $7.5B in fire costs (May 4, 2020) read more
“”I’m guessing that it is probably not a particularly enjoyable role at this point to be the head of PG&E — they are a much vilified company, and completely deservedly so,” Maurath Sommer concurred.
She has doubts about the strategy of bringing in a new CEO at this point, especially given that the bottom has completely fallen out of the economy due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company is going to require someone “who needs to look very differently at [the way] they are approaching ratemaking right now.””
Utility Dive, Advocates question move to new PG&E CEO amid coronavirus, upcoming wildfire season (April 23, 2020) read more
“April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, a group involved in the regulatory proceedings, said she thought the commission didn’t go far enough. She had appealed the $2.14 billion penalty decision even before Rechtschaffen sought to change it, and she wanted the commission to preserve its ability to investigate the company’s conduct surrounding 2017 and 2018 fires.
Allowing PG&E to avoid the $200 million fine altogether is “the worst possible message you can send to the utility,” she said.
“It informs them that even when the commission has determined that a utility should be fined, if they are able to use some cunning and clever lawyering, they’re not going to have to pay,” she said. “It’s very disturbing.””
-San Francisco Chronicle, California regulators move closer to approving PG&E’s exit from bankruptcy (April 21, 2020) read more
The CPUC has fast tracked an application by PG&E to increase residential rates $900 million dollars beginning in August by an average of 5-7%. This is just one of many rate increases PG&E plans on foisting on its customers in the coming months and year. PG&E would have the Commission approve their request for “interim” rates without any determination whether or not the requested rate increase is just or reasonable. PG&E has also applied for the Commission to establish a new process for the regulated utilities to automatically increase rates with no review whatsoever every time a utility states that it has spent $100 million on certain expenses. Such an automatic “interim” rate increase would flip the ratemaking process on its head and would rely on the word of private, for-profit companies like PG&E, now a two time convicted felon.
Wild Tree strongly objects to this manipulative effort by PG&E to utilize ratepayers as unwitting lenders. “‘PG&E’s current scenario doesn’t meet the standards of an “emergency situation’ that would warrant raising rates prematurely, April Rose Maurath Sommer, executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, told Utility Dive. . . ‘Our position is they’re effectively trying to turn ratepayers into a piggy bank and acquiring what would be extremely low-interest loans from ratepayers,’ Maurath Sommer told Utility Dive.
PG&E’s customers already pay some of the highest rates in the country, she added, and despite commitments to refund the costs at a later date, ‘the harm’s long been done then.’” Utility Dive, PG&E request for early recovery of $899M from customers troubles ratepayer advocates read more
February 27, 2020
An Administrative Law Judge has issued a decision approving a settlement between CPUC staff and PG&E for the dozens of violations of law that PG&E committed that caused 19 fires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. This settlement includes illegal activity that resulted in the highly deadly and destructive Wine Country Fires and the Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California history. The decision modifies the sweetheart deal for PG&E that CPUC staff had originally agreed to that would have assessed $0 fine, let PG&E benefit from tax deductions for the supposed “penalties,” and otherwise let PG&E off with a mere slap on the wrist.
Wild Tree played a key role in arguing against the terms of the original proposed settlement agreement especially the no fine fine and we are glad to see that a $200 million fine had been included in the amended deal approved by the ALJ. Unfortunately, Wild Tree and partner PG&E customer Thomas Del Monte, have not yet been successful in compelling the CPUC to truly investigate the cause of the Tubbs Fire and to investigate the possibility that PG&E has known since 1987 that the piece of equipment that failed outside of Paradise, California igniting the Camp Fire (C-hook) risks failure throughout its territory. The ALJ’s decision does not change the terms of the settlement that effectively bar any further CPUC action against PG&E for such malfeasance.
“April Rose Maurath Sommer, the executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, a group involved in the regulatory proceedings, told The Chronicle in an email that she planned to appeal the decision, calling it “insufficient” to address PG&E’s wildfire-related misdeeds.” – San Francisco Chronicle, PG&E penalty from 2017, 2018 fires could grow 27% read more
Oct. 24, 2019
“April Maurath Sommer, executive director of the Wild Tree Foundation, an environmental group based in the Bay Area, said the quick approval of safety certifications amounted to a ‘rubber stamp’ and criticized how the new law shifted the burden from utilities having to prove they acted responsibly onto customer advocates needing to show power companies acted negligently. ‘It’s a David and Goliath situation now,’ Maurath Sommer said. ‘There’s an assumption of safety here that the utilities don’t deserve.'” -San Diego Union Tribune, Rob Nikolewski, California regulators approve funding for controversial wildfire law, Assembly Bill 1054 creates a $21 billion fund for fires caused by utility equipment
Wild Tree opposes California ratepayers being forced to contribute to the AB 1054 wildfire insurance fund as an unconstitutional taking of property without due process and as unjust, unreasonable, and unsafe. Unfortunately, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently voted to approve a rate increase for the fund, thus approving a pre-bailout for future utility-caused fires.
Under this scheme, CPUC staff awards an investor owned utility (IOU) a “safety certificate” based on very low bar and the IOU is then presumed to have not be at fault for any fires they cause for the following year. SCE and SDG&E were granted a rubber stamped safety certificate 6 days after they submitted their requests.
If an IOU causes a fire, it can use the wildfire insurance fund to pay out claims to victims. The fund is paid for by ratepayers with an electricity bill increase. While there are some IOU “stockholder contributions” to the fund, stockholders make their money off the backs of ratepayers and the IOUs are all asking for increased rates of return so any stockholder contributions really derive from rates.
If parties that voluntarily engage in CPUC proceedings, such as small non-profits like Wild Tree and individual ratepayers, can prove that the IOU was negligent, reckless, and/or imprudent in causing a fire then the IOU might have to reimburse the fund. BUT, this reimbursement is capped over a three year period. The cap is set at 20% of the utility’s transmission and distribution equity rate base, less any actual or pending reimbursements during the prior three-years. For example, PG&E reimbursement cap would be approximately $2.5 billion.
PG&E has yet to meet the requirements to take part in the fund but the bankruptcy and all sorts of PG&E-related proceedings at the CPUC are being unreasonably rushed so it can take advantage of the fund. Assuming PG&E continues business as usual, under AB 1054, if an PG&E causes a future fire and the damage claims exceed $2.5 billion, even if Wild Tree or other parties could overcome a presumption of safety based upon a safety certificate and show that PG&E acted wrongly, the IOU will still be able to rely on ratepayer funds to pay damage claims for a fire it caused due to business decisions. If it caused other fires within 3 years, it might not have to reimburse the fund for any of the costs of successive fires so long as that $2.5 billion cap is reached. This creates a major disincentive for PG&E to prioritize safety over profits and is precisely the sort of deregulation of for-profit, private electric utilities that California does not need!