As California advances policies to increase affordable housing and shift to zero carbon energy, many developers have been waiting months for Pacific Gas & Electric Company to turn on the lights.
PG&E's backlog of construction projects has resulted in irksome wait times for developers and a fear they won't be able to adhere to those new policies.
Stephen Emami is the Vice President of Roem Development, a corporation that creates affordable and market-rate housing in California. Recently, the company opened an affordable housing complex at 353 Main St. in Redwood City, but it experienced longer than usual construction times due to long wait times and delays from PG&E when attempting to connect to the electrical grid.
As a result, according to Emami, the apartment complex opened later than anticipated. Emami said receiving service from PG&E was a complicated and subjective process.
"There's inconsistencies with the organization which I hope will change. I hope that we can all be on the same page so as a developer you can better prepare," Emami said.
A new bill aims to hold California utility companies, like PG&E, accountable for providing inconsistent service.
Sen. Josh Becker, (D-San Mateo) is one of California's lawmakers sounding the alarm on the numerous delayed projects that prevent customers and developers from receiving timely access to the electric grid.
Becker's state bill 410, the "Powering Up California" Act, would require the Public Utilities Commission to decrease the time it takes for electrical utilities companies, like PG&E, to connect its customers to electricity service by establishing target timelines for PG&E to complete projects on its roster.
According to the bill, PG&E must report its status in complying with the target timelines for project completion, or provide a reason as to why it cannot comply. The Public Utilities Commission will establish specific reporting requirements, which would be made available to the public.
According to Becker, PG&E's delays in upgrading electricity service are examples of how California's "electricity monopolies" are failing to perform their core responsibilities.
"It's time for us to hold PG&E and others accountable. This bill does that,” Becker said at the May 24 hearing.“It requires [the Public Utilities Commission] to plan and set timelines for how to accommodate these growing electricity grid connection requests in order to reduce delays and preemptively prevent future delays."
Becker noted that one of the primary goals of the bill is to ensure that there are no roadblocks in California's path to clean energy. According to Becker, SB 410 would also help the state achieve its clean energy initiatives.
California has advanced policies to deploy more EVs, shift natural gas usages to electricity in buildings, and increase housing supply, including affordable housing— those projects all rely on access to the electric grid.
The wait times are also troubling to some of PG&E's customers in the trucking industry who have been outspoken about how electrical delays seriously hinder their ability to comply with the state's requirements to transition to electric trucks.
Commercial manufacturers say charging stations that are already in California cannot be used because they are not connected to the electric grid, or they are not receiving enough power to charge a semi-truck. Customers are delaying taking possession of electric semi-trucks — those that have already been purchased from manufacturers –– because without an energized charging station, the trucks are unusable, according to Charlie Lawlor, Josh Becker's press secretary.
Electric vehicle manufacturers, charging infrastructure developers and electric transportation industry stakeholders are just some of the constituents who reached out to the office of Becker in support of SB 410.
“Our office received many complaints from constituents about the delays in connecting new EV chargers, home developments, distribution upgrades for electrification and we even had a hospital in our district that was delayed in connection,” Lawlor said.
Roadblocks and delays
According to Emami, a plan that has been reviewed and approved by PG&E can also be turned down by field inspectors during construction, which can make it challenging to adhere to the timeline.
“Sometimes you go with the plan exactly the way it is and they don’t agree with it, or field inspectors look at it differently, so there’s a lot of [subjectivity] in the inspection process,” Emami said.
With a large backlog of projects and connections being delayed, many different housing development companies are dealing with the same problem as Roem. Emami said that there is a lack of structure and control over which projects get addressed first.
“It’s a lot of like, who’s screaming the loudest? Otherwise they just don’t care,” Emami said.
PG&E told the Redwood City Pulse it has not yet taken a stance on SB 410, but acknowledged the backlog of projects. The utility company said it "is aware its new-service connection process has "fallen short of some customers' expectations, and that delays have real-world effects on [our] customers."
"We are meeting with customers, construction trades, stakeholders, lawmakers, policymakers and regulators to hear their concerns and collaborate on solutions to improve our process and accelerate new business connections," said Jennifer Robison, a spokesperson for the utility company.
Existing state laws require the California Public Utilities Commission to take and observe data from all the electrical corporations beneath them, including PG&E. It also sets guidelines for PG&E regarding the budget and timeline for its projects.
SB 410 would require the California Public Utilities Commission to act on that authority and ensure that PG&E adheres to its deadlines. Under SB 410, PG&E must provide the CPUC with detailed information about their current and prospective staffing levels. Those reports must also be made available to the public.
A previous version of SB 410 would have established a so-called working group within the Public Utilities Commission to "propose processes that would improve the ability of electrical corporations to be informed well in advance of needed increases in distribution system capacity."
State Sen. Brian Dhale who represents 11 Northern California counties and part of Sacramento, said ahead of SB 410's passage that he was in support of the bill before it was amended to exclude a so-called 'working group,' which would have provided PG&E with more of a say in the target deadlines.
"We all understand that there's issues but a lot of that has to do with equipment. It has to do with a lot of other things other than just the utilities not doing what they're supposed to do," said Dhale.
But for Becker, the passage of SB 410 entails greater collaboration with electrical companies and their constituents, with the goal of achieving California's climate goals.
"The spirit of the bill [is] to get everyone together, the workers, the management, everyone at the table to discuss this," said Becker.
Becker's SB 410 was among the slew of sustainability and housing bills that came through Sacramento in recent months. Sen. Scott Weiner's state bill 83, which also cleared the Senate, would require investor-owned utility companies, like PG&E, to hook up projects to the electric grid after they've been "green tagged," meaning local officials have signed off on the work.
Becker's SB 410 is slated to be reviewed by California's Committee on Utilities and Electric on July 12, 2023.