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Commissioner Blog: Improving Utility Safety Performance Through Better Metrics and Reporting

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By Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen 

California's energy utility companies face many challenges to keep our energy infrastructure safe, including wildfires, windstorms, gas leaks, pipeline explosions, downed poles and wires, and more. And as everyone knows, the consequences of safety failures can be devastating. 

As the state's regulator of privately owned utilities, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is always working on improved methods and practices to prevent such safety failures from occurring in the first place and to plan for and respond to them as effectively as possible when they do occur. 

Recently, for instance, we approved a decision that seeks to enhance safety performance by requiring utilities to more systematically report and explain their spending on risk mitigation programs and to monitor and report their success in meeting key safety metrics.

Additionally, every three years, the energy utilities come to the CPUC to request money for operations and maintenance of their systems in General Rate Cases that result in billions of dollars of spending. 

Last year, in another safety related action taken in our Safety Model Assessment Proceeding, we established rules for utilities to more objectively quantify the risks they face when they come before us, determine spending to mitigate these risks, and be more transparent about their decision-making process. See my previous blog here

Historically, however, utility companies have sometimes diverted money approved for safety programs to other purposes, creating significant problems. Before Pacific Gas and Electric Company's (PG&E) gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 for example, PG&E re-purposed money that was originally authorized for pipeline upgrades to staff and management salaries. 

Now, to remedy concerns over such diverted spending and to increase the transparency surrounding utility spending more generally, our recent decision establishes an annual Risk Spending Accountability Report for each utility. 

This report will require utility companies to compare their approved spending for safety, reliability, and maintenance programs to actual  spending on the programs, and explain any discrepancies between the two. The report will tell us if a utility company underspent money authorized for safety, reliability, or maintenance programs.  The utility will have to explain if the project was cancelled or deferred. We will also require the utilities to report on authorized activities and actual safety activities performed, for each program, broken down for individual work units where available. This reporting will alert us early on to underspending on important safety programs, and help hold the utilities accountable for minimizing their safety risks. If large variances in spending indicate that safety was compromised, the CPUC can open an investigation into whether any CPUC rules were violated.

The second new requirement authorized by the decision is the reporting on key safety performance metrics. The decision adopts more than two dozen specific safety metrics, and requires further development of certain metrics that will help us assess and evaluate safety culture. While utilities currently keep track of various measures that relate to safety-i.e., employee injuries,injuries to the public, and fire ignitions - the CPUC has lacked tools for systematically evaluating whether utility actions and spending are improving what we care about most-safety outcomes. This will be the first time that metrics that are collected are aggregated and easily accessible to the public and parties that participate in our proceedings. 

The utilities will have to explain how they used the safety metrics data to improve staff and contractor training and to take corrective actions to limit top risks or factors that create safety risks. These metrics will better focus on these bottom-line performance criteria.  

Each year, the utilities will also be required to measure and report on these key safety metrics, so we can monitor their progress toward reducing those risks. One example is the Wires Down metric, which will tell us how many times an electric conductor breaks and makes contact with the ground or another object. This metric is important because it can be a precursor to fire ignitions. Utilities will also track and report fire ignitions from their powerlines, which will help us determine whether the utilities' fire mitigation measures are successful at reducing ignitions. 

Another key metric is Public Serious Injuries and Fatalities, which will track serious injuries and fatalities involving the public and utility equipment. This will allow the CPUC and stakeholders to assess trends in this area and determine proper preventive measures. To assist with this analysis, this metric will be reported by categories, such as gas dig-ins (where someone is excavating and strikes a pipeline), contact with utility equipment (such as an electrocution), and vehicle collisions. 

New challenges require us all to adapt and to think more creatively. And we know that safety is a never-ending consideration that must be addressed with a variety of approaches, including new reporting and accountability provisions. This decision approved April 25, 2019, is another example of our efforts to strengthen the safety culture and performance of the utilities we regulate, and we will continue working on better ways to keep people, property and our environment safe.

If you're interested in learning about our other safety efforts, you can follow me on Twitter

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