Newsom Has the Power to Remedy Power Outages – Why Hasn’t He Acted?

Amid an unprecedented – and excruciating – recent number of intentional power outages to mitigate the risk of fires during California’s dry, windy conditions, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a number of policy measures, ranging from demands for $100 rebates to PG&E customers to threatened fines to appointing an energy czar, none of which will squarely address the unacceptable dilemma of widespread and continuing power outages that have already affected millions of my fellow Californians.  PG&E reports that it may take ten years to reinforce its aging infrastructure to avoid such outages.

However, the governor himself holds the power to mitigate the need for such widespread power outages.  The California Emergency Services Act grants the governor the power to declare a state of emergency to implement an accelerated program for reinforcing the state’s power infrastructure by lifting those statutes and regulations that require California utilities to divert their resources to meet expensive goals for renewable energy and instead of investing the funds to strengthen its infrastructure.  The Act would also empower the governor to enlist the mutual aid of the state’s many subdivisions to assist in a massive effort to trim back trees that endanger transmission lines, particularly in forested areas.

California’s goals of deriving 33 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% by 2030, requires a significant diversion of resources that could otherwise go to protecting the public’s health and safety by reinforcing the aging transmission lines, towers, and substations.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R- Yuba City observed that in 2017, PG&E spent $2.4 billion in purchasing renewable energy, but only $1.5 billion in updating its infrastructure. And while the state’s renewable energy goals are laudable, there must be a balance between the resources allocated to renewable energy for a distant (and fire-ravaged) tomorrow and those allocated to the public safety today.

This is particularly the case when reputable sources note that California accounts for less than 1% of global emissions.  Thus, a temporary reduction of future renewable energy goals to address the present peril of fire, fury, and outages would likely make no difference to climate change.

The Emergency Services Act allows the governor to mitigate the effects of “natural” or “manmade” causes of emergencies, which result in “conditions of disaster or in extreme peril to life, property, and the resources of the state,” which are “likely beyond the control” of any single county or city – which certainly describe the impending risk of fires capable of destroying people’s lives, whole towns (like Paradise), and Presidential Libraries, and power outages that disrupt life-sustaining medical equipment, food storage,  and even cell service based on voice-over-internet service, cutting their users from the outside world.

Significantly, the Act grants the governor the power to “suspend any regulatory statute” or “the orders, rules, or regulations of any state agency . . . where the Governor determines and declares that strict compliance with any statute, order, rule, or regulation would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the emergency.”  Thus, the governor could temporarily lift statutory and regulatory renewable energy requirements to provide utilities with the funds for an accelerated effort to strengthen their aging power infrastructure and to trim back trees that threaten transmission lines.  Local governments could be enlisted and trained to help with the effort.

Gov. Pete Wilson invoked the Emergency Services Act when the 1994 Northridge earthquake buckled the Santa Monica Freeway, cutting off a key artery between west Los Angeles and downtown.

Exercising his emergency powers, he lifted the regulatory red tape, including lengthy bidding requirements, and offered a bonus for every day the repairs were completed before the 140-day contractual deadline. The freeway was repaired in record time — 66 days.  That was leadership at a time in need.

And the scope of the governor’s emergency powers was demonstrated when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger invoked it to deal with prison overcrowding in 2006 – a decision upheld by the California appellate courts.

Climate change is occurring, but that does not mean that the public health and safety must suffer based on pure speculation that particular goals for renewable energy cannot be temporarily lifted without impacting climate change.

If President Nixon, with his anti-communist credentials, could go to China, Gov. Newsom, with his anti-carbon credentials, can surely temporarily moderate renewable energy goals in order to free up funds to address the present danger of deadly fires and dangerous power outages.

Daniel Kolkey serves on the board of the Pacific Research Institute. He is an attorney and former judge.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute.