California Lawmakers Grill PG&E Execs Over October Power Outages

Pacific Gas & Electric crews work to restore power lines in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

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.

Lawmakers said the public – particularly elderly and vulnerable populations – faced challenges getting updated information about community gathering centers and places where residents could do things like charge medical devices and cell phones that use electricity.

Napa state Senator Bill Dodd demanded that PG&E improve on its messaging and that future blackouts be “precise and minimized.” He ripped the three executives who testified Monday, including CEO Bill Johnson.

“I looked at what happened on Oct. 9 as a big screw you to your customers, to the Legislature, to the governor,” Dodd said.

Johnson, who has been with PG&E for just six months, admitted that the company botched the first round of outages but said PG&E was improving its website, call centers and maps as a result. He acknowledged that the shutoffs can’t be a long-term fixture of the company’s wildfire prevention playbook but refused to give an exact timeline for PG&E’s ongoing and court-mandated efforts to fully fire-proof its massive infrastructure.

“For us this is an unnatural act; in the utility business, your job is to keep the power on 24-7,” Johnson testified. “I think we focused on [the shutoffs] as the main event, instead of the impact of that on the people.”

Despite the public backlash and inconvenience, Johnson told the committee that the shutoffs likely prevented new wildfires. He said crews found hundreds of cases of damage to power lines and other infrastructure following the shutoffs.

But many lawmakers – particularly those representing PG&E service areas – weren’t buying PG&E’s explanations or statistics from the shutoffs.

Johnson said the longest outage was five days, but state Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, countered that households and businesses in his district went without power for over a week. McGuire took a direct shot at PG&E during a tense back-and-forth with Johnson.

“This is typical of PG&E; they say one thing and really the reality is different,” McGuire said. “There were some isolated communities that were out for 11 days.”

McGuire’s assault continued as he told PG&E and lawmakers that “all options are on the table” once the legislative session resumes in January and recounted the utility’s recent string of deadly mistakes.

“Strike one was the San Bruno gas explosion that they tried to cover up and then they lied about it. Strike two was the 2017-18 wildfires. Strike three is the woefully inadequate response to these power shutoffs,” he said.

Lawmakers’ tone differed dramatically while questioning Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, which also conducted shutoffs last month but to a much lesser degree. San Diego testified that 25,000 customers lost power with an average outage of 24 hours and Edison claimed less than 100,000.

While state Senator Henry Stern criticized Edison for not doing enough to help out vulnerable customers and reimburse them for spoiled food and medications, including his grandmother who lost power last month, he said he has not “lost faith” in the utility that serves 5 million Southern Californians. 

Over the last month, lawmakers and others have raised the possibility of the state intervening and essentially performing a takeover of San Francisco based PG&E. Senator Wiener says he is planning to introduce legislation in the coming months that would transform PG&E into a government-ran utility.

Several senators asked Johnson whether PG&E is open to such an extreme proposal, but he would only say that it is considering every option as it continues through its high-profile bankruptcy case. He also hinted that a public takeover could have legal hurdles.

“This could turn out different ways. We do have a plan in front of the bankruptcy court to let us emerge as PG&E with a different sort of vision,” Johnson said.

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