Close to Home: A changing climate calls for new approaches

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California is facing a challenging future, a fact that the communities of the North Bay know better than most.

In the past 10 months, our state has battled six of the 20 most devastating wildfires in its history. One of these blazes is still raging, and as we go through the traditionally active fire months of August and September, future impacts may be on the horizon.

New fires are burning, while those hit hardest by last year’s disasters are still mourning their losses and trying to recover.

As communities like Redding, Santa Rosa and Ventura rebuild, it’s imperative that stakeholders — including homeowners, lawmakers and companies like PG&E — take steps to not only recover from past wildfires but also do what is necessary to avoid future disasters.

Earlier this year, PG&E launched its community wildfire safety program, focused on bolstering our wildfire prevention and response efforts, implementing additional safety measures intended to reduce wildfire threats and doing more to harden our electric system over the long term.

Today, we’re monitoring wildfire risks around the clock at our Wildfire Safety Operations Center and, as a last resort, stand ready to proactively shut off power during days of extreme fire risk through our public safety power shutoff program.

Actions such as these will help keep our customers and our communities safe, but to truly address tomorrow’s threats, we must work together to develop solutions to fully address the issues at hand.

Some of these solutions will come from Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have convened a special committee to address the impacts of climate-driven wildfire.

PG&E’s position in these discussions is simple — we support reform that will protect wildfire victims, our customers and California’s clean energy future.

We believe that any proposed solution will be incomplete without accounting for the victims of the 2017 wildfires. To that end, PG&E supports Assembly Bill 33, which would make victims whole, reduce customer bill impacts and ensure utility accountability.

This bill would authorize low-cost bonds to pay the costs of the North Bay fires. This would reduce customer costs by nearly a third when compared to traditional utility financing methods, while allowing for prompt resolution of damage claims.

To be clear, this bill doesn’t offer a free pass for utilities. It provides for the California Public Utilities Commission to review and reject any costs that aren’t deemed reasonable.

There’s also the question of how liability should be assessed for future wildfires.

Under the state’s current policies, utilities face massive, essentially uninsurable risks, even when they have followed established safety and compliance rules, due to California’s flawed application of inverse condemnation. Expecting California’s electric customers to bear these costs when the utility wasn’t negligent, but its equipment was involved, is unsustainable and threatens the ability to invest in the resilient and clean energy future that will be needed to combat the effects of climate change.

Reforming inverse condemnation wouldn’t absolve utilities from responsibility for future wildfires. If a utility is found negligent, victims could still seek compensation, just as they can today.

As we move forward in these discussions, we must pay heed to the lessons of the past 10 months and recognize that the status quo is no longer working in California.

Our climate has changed. The way that we respond must change as well.

Steve Malnight is senior vice president of strategy and policy for PG&E.

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