California Regulators Blast PG&E Over Power Shutoff Blunders

California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer, top right, and commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen, top left, listen as Pacific Gas and Electric Company CEO Bill Johnson, bottom, speaks during a meeting at commission headquarters in San Francisco on Friday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California regulators lambasted Pacific Gas and Electric’s top executives and board members over its botched handling of planned power blackouts during a 4.5-hour meeting Friday.

“This is not hard. You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff,” said Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission.

The power shutoffs, aimed at preventing wildfires amid forecasts of strong and dry winds, impacted 738,000 customers in 35 counties in Northern and Central California from Oct. 9-12.

Commissioners harshly criticized PG&E for poor planning, insufficient coordination with local governments, a downed website, an overwhelmed call center and a failure to set up emergency resource centers in affected communities, among other problems.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said he stands by the decision cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers because it may have saved lives, but he apologized for a poor execution of the Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program.

“We acknowledge these critical errors,” Johnson said. “It cannot happen again.”

Johnson disputed claims that the company had to cut power in high fire-risk areas because its “system is in shambles” due to years of neglected maintenance. Despite that assertion, the CEO also acknowledged that widespread power shutoffs must continue until the company makes more headway in upgrading its system, covering and burying power lines and clearing vegetation around its lines.

Johnson said the company is also installing new devices to compartmentalize the system, creating micro-grids that will enable cutting power to smaller vicinities when needed.

When asked how much longer PG&E customers must deal with widespread blackouts when weather conditions require it, Johnson predicted it could take another decade.

“I think this it’s probably a 10-year time line,” Johnson said. “I think it will be better every year.”

PG&E’s chief information officer Kathleen Kay said the company’s website, designed to inform customers about power shutoffs during the incident, went down for 12 hours because they “did not anticipate the amount of external interest” from media outlets and other non-customers.

The website saw a spike of 1.7 million user requests per hour, compared to the typical 7,000 requests per hour, she said.

Batjer replied that she was astonished by the company’s poor planning and technological shortcomings.

“It’s very concerning to me that a corporation, a company of your size, seems to be very lacking and not very modern in your [information technology] infrastructure,” Batjer said.

When asked about California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent request that PG&E provide $100 to $250 rebates to customers affected by the power blackouts, PG&E’s CEO of Utility Operations Andrew Vesey said the company has no plans to issue rebates at this time.

“It is not our intention at this moment to undertake a reimbursement for those customers,” Vesey said.

Vesey also assured commissioners that shareholders, not ratepayers, would foot the bill for a poorly timed Sonoma County winery event that took place right before the power shutoffs. It also coincided with the two-year anniversary of deadly North Bay wildfires, most of which were blamed on PG&E equipment. Vesey said the company took “appropriate measures” to make sure something like that never occurs again, referring in part to the abrupt removal of PG&E’s top gas executive Mel Christopher.

Responding to a complaint from local governments, the company also said it would assign liaisons to coordinate with affected county and tribal governments during power shutoffs in the future.

Fire Victims Ask To Extend Deadline in Bankruptcy Court

Also on Friday, lawyers for wildfire victims filed a motion to extend the deadline for filing claims in bankruptcy court from Oct. 21 to Jan. 31, 2020.

With a deadline coming this Monday, only 1,545 fire-related claims have been filed, even though more than 40,000 wildfire claims were documented in a separate legal database.

“There is substantial evidence that the primary reason that many fire victims have not yet filed proofs of claim is the victims’ personal emotional or physical impairment, caused by the trauma of the fires, and the circumstances in which those victims now live,” the Tort Claimants Committee, which represents fire victims, wrote in its 20-page motion.

PG&E said in a statement Friday that it believes the process for notifying fire victims of the deadline has been “broad and thorough—above and beyond what is typical in a Chapter 11 process.”

The company said it needs to resolve all wildfire-related liabilities in order to meet a state-imposed deadline for exiting bankruptcy, and that the bar date is “an important milestone in that process.”

“We are on track to achieve confirmation of our Plan in advance of the June 30, 2020 statutory deadline imposed by AB 1054 so that we can pay victims and realize the important customer and public benefits that result from the company’s participation in the go-forward wildfire fund,” PG&E said in an emailed statement. “We will review the motions and respond by the deadline.”

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