“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
“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
Wild Tree Foundation recently spoke at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter Peninsula Wildfire Safety Summit. Check out our presentation on Utility Caused Fires in California and PG&E Deforestation.
PG&E Fires & Deforestation Presentation
June 28, 2019
The CPUC has issued a decision approving a “stress test” methodology that SCE could use to get a ratepayer-funded bailout for the Thomas Fire even if it is deemed to have acted imprudently and caused the fire. In an unexpected, but welcome, move, the CPUC prohibited PG&E for using this stress test to recover costs from the Napa-Sonoma Fires.
“‘This is a big blow for PG&E,’ said April Rose Maurath Sommer, the executive and legal director of the Wild Tree Foundation, which was involved in the regulatory proceedings. ‘That aspect of the decision is very good.’ She said the stress test could still potentially be used by Southern California Edison, whose equipment state investigators have said sparked the 2017 Thomas Fire.” -San Francisco Chronicle, PG&E probably barred from new path for raising rates because of 2017 fires read more
April 22, 2019
Wild Tree Foundation is pushing back against California Public Utilities Commission efforts to approve a blueprint for a PG&E bailout for the Napa-Sonoma Fires.
“April Rose Maurath Sommer, the executive and legal director of Wild Tree Foundation, said “in an ideal world,” regulators would dismiss the proceeding. She thinks the stress test provision was included in 2018 legislation, SB901, to stave off a PG&E bankruptcy, which happened anyway. “The only reason I can see that the commission is interested in pushing this proceeding so quickly and so aggressively is they consider it their role that they improve the outlook of PG&E for investors,” Maurath Sommer said. “The commission’s role is not to protect PG&E. It’s not to protect the utilities. It’s to protect the ratepayers.” -San Francisco Chronicle, Regulators race to give PG&E a path to raise rates for wildfire costs read more
April 12, 2019
Governor Newsom’s Strike Force report on Wildfires and Climate Change: California’s Energy Future has some good ideas but a reversal of strict liability/inverse condemnation for utility-caused fires is not one of them.
“April Maurath Sommer, a longtime defender of inverse condemnation, said the doctrine does not need to be modified. Changing inverse condemnation “is a distraction,” said Maurath Sommer, the executive director of the Wild Tree Foundation, an environmental and consumer group based in the San Francisco Bay Area. “The utilities’ negligent practices have caused these fires and that is what we’re dealing with and that is what needs to be addressed.”- Los Angles Times/San Diego Union Tribune, Mixed Reaction to Newsom’s Strike Force Report on California Wildfires read more