SACRAMENTO (CN) – Fallout from a rash of recent blackouts reached the California Capitol Monday as lawmakers accused Pacific Gas and Electric executives of poor planning and oversight when it left millions of the state’s residents in the dark during October’s planned power outages.
“Our constituents have no more confidence in this utility, and they don’t have a great deal of respect for the company,” said state Senator Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley.
The utility has been under bombardment for weeks by customers, shareholders and regulators and the assault continued Monday during an emergency out-of-session Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee hearing. More than a dozen senators gathered to pelt executives from PG&E and the state’s other two privately owned utilities regarding their emerging use of so-called “public safety power shutoffs.”
State Senator Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, accused PG&E of using a “sledgehammer” not a “scalpel” when it executed the blackouts, and said Northern California remains in a state of “emergency” due to the mega-utility’s fire-prone infrastructure.
“In California, the fifth largest economy in the world, it appears that we can no longer even keep the lights on,” Wiener said. “That is beyond unacceptable.”
The hearing, which lasted over seven hours, came as PG&E issued a new warning that customers in 19 counties could potentially lose power later this week due to high winds. If forecasts hold up, an estimated 250,000 households could be without power in the days before Thanksgiving.
PG&E said this week’s fire potential was “well above normal” thanks to another month without rain and an abundance of dry fuels across the state.
After an above-average winter pulled most of the state out of drought conditions, the latest update by the U.S. Drought Monitor highlighted just how dry the summer and fall seasons have been in the Golden State. The report pegged over 80% of the state as abnormally dry compared to just 5% Three months ago.
On several occasions during the last two months, PG&E made the proactive, but unpopular, decision to cut power to rural and urban customers in the face of forecasted windstorms. The blackouts touched the majority of the state’s counties, with local officials reporting durations ranging from two days up to 11 days.
Though California utilities have sparingly used the tactic dating back to 2003, power shutoffs have become increasingly common. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s three major utilities have reported 29 separate incidents since 2017.
California’s utility regulator has opened up a formal investigation into the power outages with a related hearing scheduled for Wednesday in San Francisco.
Senators opened the hearing by blasting PG&E for not giving customers or local authorities proper notice before the October shutoffs and for a lacking public awareness campaign. The company’s website stalled prior to and during the blackouts, and outage maps were also inaccurate.