Melissa Semcer (MEM’07) takes us inside California’s wildfire crisis

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Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020 - 9:50 am
Melissa Semcer headshot
As an administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission, Semcer presided over many stakeholder proceedings ranging from ratepayer disputes to policy cases. In this role, she authored complex decisions advancing California energy and climate change policies. 

As wildfires ravaged California in late 2019, millions of residents coped with massive power blackouts. Duke alumna Melissa Semcer's work at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has given her a unique perspective on the crisis. 

As an administrative law judge, Semcer helped develop the guidelines that govern execution of the new Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Several of the state’s utilities implemented these in October and November, cutting power to millions in preemptive efforts to avoid starting wildfires. On Nov. 12, Semcer issued a ruling requiring the large electric utility PG&E to defend its violation of communication protocols during recent shut-offs, describing the events as “ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated (both internally and externally) and ineffectively communicated.”

Semcer has now pivoted to address California’s challenges from an implementation perspective, as Program Manager for Wildfire Mitigation at the CPUC’s newly created Wildfire Safety Division. She sat down recently with Duke student Ian Reichardt (MEM’21) to discuss the complexities of the wildfire crisis. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To get started, would you mind describing what the California Public Utilities Commission does and what your role there is?

The CPUC is the agency in California that is tasked with regulating investor-owned utilities of all kinds. That includes water companies, large investor-owned electric utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and smaller ones like Liberty Utilities and Bear Valley. We also oversee rail crossings, transportation (including Lyft and Uber), moving companies, and other services. We have some communication oversight as well.

As an administrative law judge at the commission, I mostly focused on energy cases. Whether it’s a ratepayer dispute or a policy case, the judges work to build the record, get stakeholder input through hearings, and put forward decisions that are legally sound and evidence-based. For the major cases, the commissioners vote on those decisions—and that’s how the commission sets policy.

In my current role as a Program Manager in the new Wildfire Safety Division, I am overseeing the evaluation of the electric utilities' wildfire mitigation plans. I am building a team to evaluate the plans as well as to support real-time Public Safety Power Shutoffs. In essence, I'm taking everything I learned as a judge and getting into the day-to-day work of reducing utility-caused wildfires.

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs have been getting a ton of news coverage recently, and I want to talk about that. But first, these shutoffs are just one measure included within the Wildfire Mitigation Plans that new legislation (SB 901) has required utilities to develop. What else do these plans encompass?

Grid hardening is one element. That can include replacing wood power poles with concrete poles and stopping the use of reclosers so that when power is interrupted, the line is not sparking as it tries to re-electrify.

Vegetation management is another aspect: making sure the trees are not close to the wires and trying to calculate the trajectory of wind to minimize contact with the lines. But it’s also an environmental issue because it can mean cutting down so many trees.

There’s also sectionalizing the grid so that you can be more strategic about what is on and off.

And then forest management, which is not the utility’s job: controlled burns and things like that.

And then also outside of the plans, there’s building codes. As we build new communities, the question is, can you build communities that are up to fire code, but also have breaks around them? And then also things like ingress and egress. One of the issues with the Paradise (Camp) fire was that there were only one-lane roads. That was a massive issue because people couldn’t get out.

Can you talk about the CPUC’s process for assessing the utilities’ Wildfire Mitigation Plans and the major stakeholders involved?

Each of the plans went through our case process. When I was an administrative law judge, my colleagues and I heard from a number of stakeholders like counties, local governments, water companies and disability rights organizations. We coordinated with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and, for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), with California Office of Emergency Services. In the case addressing PSPS guidelines, we heard from people running refineries, healthcare, and transportation.

This year, there was such a tight turnaround. SB 901 allows for 90 days from the time the plan is filed to approve it, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for digging into it. So with the first round of Wildfire Mitigation Plans that were approved, we were really only able to ask, did the plans include all of the pieces and information they were supposed to, per legislation? We didn’t have time to ask, are these the right expenditures? Are these the right choices for achieving our goals? That’s something the CPUC is going to be looking at more, going forward.

In 2019, California adopted AB 1054, which, in part, created the Wildfire Safety Division, where I am a Program Manager. The Wildfire Safety Division is tasked with evaluating the Wildfire Mitigation Plans from 2020 on. The Plans will no longer be evaluated through a formal proceeding. For 2020, we have relased templates and metrics, including a maturity assessment, to take evaluation of the plans to the next level. The Division will also be tasked with assessing compliance with the plans, in essence creating a feedback loop for plans in future years.

What factors have caused PG&E to be so heavily impacted by the intensifying wildfire season? Has it been management issues, equipment problems, or just bad luck?

PG&E is the state’s largest utility, and it has a very large territory.

It also has aging infrastructure. There has been deferred maintenance, but this is, in my mind, an issue facing more than just PG&E. It’s something all the utilities in the country need to confront and is an issue that goes beyond only utility infrastructure.

And then with climate change, the duration, severity, and intensity of our wildfire season has increased. Northern California’s equivalent of the Santa Anas involved wind gusts of up to 108 miles per hour on top of some of the hills. That’s not normal. And the fuel load is heightened because we’re having these intense rains over a shorter period of time. It’s really dry later in the year, and with all this dead vegetation, it really only takes seconds for something to just blow up when it ignites.

So there’s a lot of things coming together.

There has been a lot of criticism that these emergency power shutoffs are disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, like those with disabilities or hourly workers whose employers are forced to close during shutoffs. How can utilities and/or the CPUC better ensure that these people are either less severely impacted or indemnified for their losses?

There’s a term that California’s Office of Emergency Services uses that we’ve adopted: Access and Functional Needs Populations. Those groups include low-income people, non-native English speakers, people relying on medical equipment, and others. We’ve identified that those populations are impacted more severely and are going to need assistance in various ways.

There’s a number of factors that make them harder hit by the fires and power shutoffs. With rising costs, lower-income residents are often having to move further out into what we call Wildland Urban Interfaces, which are at higher risk for fire. Then you have elderly populations as well. So for example, in Paradise, many of the 86 people that were killed were elderly.

It’s possible that people could die not just from fires but from power shutoffs themselves. As I was writing the guidelines, this was on the forefront of my mind. To my knowledge, there have been no deaths associated with the shutoffs. But that could change.

There are several components of mitigation for these populations.

One is preparation in advance: making sure that they have a plan, including emergency contacts and people to help them. That means working with the local governments and also the utilities—which is where some of the information sharing gets challenging. The utilities have Medical Baseline tariffs that you can be on, if you’re reliant on medical equipment. It’s elective, but before a shutoff event they can’t share that information with the local government. The minute the shutoff event is called, they can start sharing information because it’s now an emergency situation.

There’s also the question of whether these populations should be getting backup generation provided by the utility, and if so, who? Utilities have generally come from the standpoint that they should focus backup generation efforts on the people for whom electricity is a lifesaving measure. But advocates for disabled and low-income people argue that a low-income person losing all of their refrigerated food can be a make-or-break situation.

And there’s how people are notified of the events. Right now, the utilities are sending out text messages, using the radio, news, all these broadcast methods. But there is also what we call positive notification, which requires the utility to confirm that you got the notification, even if that means going to your door to check. And we’re figuring out which groups should get that—right now, in-person notification is required for power shutoffs for people with Medical Baseline status.

There’s also cooling centers and charging centers being set up, places where people can go that are run by generators. At this point, those are only open during the day. I think there’s a question of, should these people have a place to go for 24/7 shelter? All of these are open questions being considered, but the answers not yet determined.

It’s a lot to consider. And it takes time to think it through. We don’t want to have any more shutoffs where people are impacted, but it’s going to happen. We’ll definitely be working to get more safeguards in place for next season.

You mentioned California’s increasingly lengthy and dangerous wildfire seasons. Is the current solution of requiring Wildfire Mitigation Plans sustainable? How would you want to see it improved?

The Wildfire Mitigation Plan requirement is just a framework. I think that some kind of framework is imperative to have. But, getting people to the table and having ongoing conversations and strategy sessions is the most important thing we can do.

The plans could be more sustainable solutions in the sense that we could require different things over time. More than anything, it’s about how do we get where we need to go? And then how do we prioritize? Because the utilities need to make a lot of investments in their grids. Simultaneously, these shutoffs are having really big impacts. You have to create policies around shutoffs, and you also want to make it so that shutoffs aren’t necessary in the future. But it’s hard to divide your attention at this point and achieve both goals right now.

San Francisco and San Jose have come out in favor of public ownership of PG&E’s infrastructure. While PG&E doesn’t seem inclined to sell off their infrastructure any time soon, I’m hoping you could discuss what public ownership might mean in the context of wildfire risk and the need for resiliency.

You could have a debate about whether utilities should be private, whether there should be shareholder gain, etc. And when we’re talking about microgrids, you could start to ask the question, “do we need utilities as monopolies anymore?” While there’s good reason to have utilities as monopolies or single providers, the changing grid... changes things.

For me, the biggest question is just, can you  safely and effectively provide the service? PG&E is a huge company, for better or worse. It also provides gas, and it has a massive territory. That is a challenge, I don’t care who you are.

As far as what public ownership would mean, I’m not sure exactly how it would go. But I imagine it would mean essentially having a board, having public rather than private compensation, getting rid of the whole shareholder process. But the question remains: is the state better equipped to run the infrastructure? If so, then who from the state would do that, to take over such a large entity?

So speaking personally, I don’t know what the right outcome is. I can say the state is thinking about all outcomes. It really comes down to, how do you get this massive infrastructure to work and to be safe and reliable? That’s Public Utility Code 451: safe and reliable provision of power.

California has made a commitment to go to 100% carbon-free power by 2045. But the state also needs reliable and safe energy delivery in the face of these wildfires. Could you comment on the the tension among these priorities?

To me, climate change speaks to safety too. If we think of it as a public health issue, then it’s a safety issue. With the Camp Fire, I’m pretty sure the amount of CO2 released negated everything that was reduced that year in California, if not more. And most backup generators are diesel generators.

So we have this tension of meeting our goals and stepping backwards from our goals. The Air Resources Board had to waive its standards during these events, because otherwise local air quality standards would be violated with all the generators being used. But we don’t have the technology right now to solely use storage and batteries—it’s getting there but it’s not far enough along to be reliable for long periods of time. So you need diesel. If this is our new normal, then we’re basically creating standards and solutions for climate change and then wiping them away with wildfires and all these reactions to public safety shutoffs.

To me, we’re in this messy period where we have this interim solution that is not going to work for the long haul. We’ve got to get a better solution, a more long-term trajectory. I don’t want to call this a blip, because that makes it sound insignificant, but until we get it figured out, we’re going to be in this two steps forward, one step back (or maybe even two steps back) pathway.

What lessons do you think other utilities and regulatory commissions can learn from California’s experience?

The main lesson is two-pronged: invest in your infrastructure but also think about your infrastructure for the future. Is the current configuration of the infrastructure the right configuration for later?

Another lesson is around seeing your utilities as part of a greater emergency management system and making sure that it’s interfacing with your counties and that all your relationships are established.

For example, in the guidelines, I required that utilities integrate with all existing emergency management systems—in California it’s called SEMS, Statewide Emergency Management System. Right now, the utilities are required to have liaisons in each county if the county requests it for a shutoff event.

So it’s starting to see your utility as a mutual partner in emergencies and as being a lead entity. And that’s the difference. Usually the utilities are assisting during an emergency, for example an earthquake but here they’re responsible for causing the emergency, so to speak. So utilities need to be considered as a partner, and they need to know their customers in a different way than before. That sounds really basic, but utilities need to know who’s where and what matters to them. Agricultural customers are going to have different concerns about losing power than urban customers will.

Another lesson is to be solutions-focused. One of the things I always want to do is bring everybody to the table and say, “Okay, what went wrong?” “What can we do better?”

Oh, and don’t think that some kind of crisis won’t happen to you. It will.

Interviewer Ian Reichardt, a graduate student assistant at the Duke University Energy Initiative, is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  

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Ian Reichardt