Fires

Called ‘greedy’ by Gavin Newsom and others, PG&E defends mass shutoff as ‘right call’

Pacific Gas and Electric is continuing to defend last week’s massive, three-phase blackout that cut power over four days to more than 730,000 customers, a coverage area servicing an estimated two million or more Californians across 35 counties, declaring in statements this week that the shutoff was the “right call.”

The utility on Tuesday gave updated estimates regarding equipment damage suffered during the critical fire weather conditions, saying that inspectors have discovered more than 100 confirmed cases of damage or hazards to power lines, double the estimate given Saturday evening.

Those numbers are still preliminary as PG&E continues to review reports from the engineered event, according to a Tuesday evening news release. Crews worked to visually inspect about 25,000 miles of distribution lines and 2,500 miles of transmission lines in the affected areas before restoring power, PG&E said.

PG&E says its weather instruments measured wind gusts exceeding 50 mph in 16 of the 35 affected counties during the wind storm that peaked last Wednesday and Thursday.

The utility also released 12 photos of trees or tree branches it said had fallen onto power lines throughout parts of Colusa, Glenn, Lake, Napa, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta and Tehama counties last week. In one case, in Shasta County, a large tree fell onto power lines with enough force to uproot a utility pole from its foundation, PG&E said Tuesday.

“While we understand and recognize the major disruption this PSPS event imposed on our customers and the general public, these findings suggest that we made the right call, and importantly no catastrophic wildfires were started,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operation, said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

PG&E’s news release went on to say that damages and hazards presenting potential sources of wildfire ignition were found in “nearly all” of the affected counties across Northern and Central California.

Many energy experts and critics of the beleaguered utility company, though, say the latest “public safety power shutoffs” are at worst “unacceptable,” and at best a necessary evil, with the governor among those calling for PG&E to provide financial compensation to all affected customers.

Newsom, California weigh in

Gov. Gavin Newsom chimed in last week that the expansive blackout was the result of PG&E’s “greed and mismanagement over the course of decades.” Newsom on Monday went on to call the shutoffs “unacceptable” and said the company should give $100 credit or rebate to each residential customer and $250 to each affected small business.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, also called the size of the blackout “completely unacceptable.”

“We can’t let PG&E normalize these blackouts,” Wiener said last week.

Wiener in September introduced an amended version of SB 378. The revised bill would impose fines by the hour during planned blackouts in an effort to stop utilities like PG&E from relying on them to limit liability.

The utility must submit an internal review of the public safety shutoff by Thursday to the California Public Utilities Commission’s president, Marybel Batjer, who announced earlier this week that the commission would hold an “emergency meeting” with PG&E executives Friday in San Francisco regarding the matter.

In a letter to the PUC on Monday, Newsom said that the state would launch an investigation into PG&E’s decision to cut power.

Mark Toney of The Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group in San Francisco, is among many who have called for compensation to customers affected by shutoffs.

“The shareholders, not the ratepayers or the taxpayers, must be responsible for paying the costs of these shutoffs,” Toney, executive director of the nonprofit, told The Mercury News of San Jose.

‘Wow, we just dodged a bullet’

Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University, said it may take PG&E – or whoever is in control of its transmission system in the future – nearly a decade to find adequate solutions to the problems of wildfire management and minimizing the impact of power shutoffs.

Wara pointed out that 100 instances of damage across 25,000 miles of equipment could work out to one tree branch doing damage every 250 miles of line. He called that error rate “not unimpressive, but also not acceptable given what’s happened,” and said it’s difficult to know exactly how high the threat was without knowing more about each individual incident. A downed conductor, he said, is far more dangerous than vegetation falling on a power line.

Still, “the ultimate sign of success is no fires,” Wara said.

“I imagine internally at PG&E, if the system damage is as bad as they say it is, they’re thinking ‘Wow, we just dodged a bullet.’ ”

On the other hand, Wara called the shutoff “a definite failure” in terms of customer relations, mentioning technical issues that plagued the website as one example of communication breakdowns. Wara, who was blacked out, says he signed up for all available text, phone and email alerts and was warned 12 hours in advance – but has still not received any follow-up communication from PG&E on the tail end of the shutoff.

“In (customer relations), the first thing you want to do is reach out to your customers, explain what happens and apologize. And they have all my digits, and I haven’t heard from them.”

Better communication or coordination between PG&E and local governments may also be necessary, Wara said, noting that water districts in some parts of the state asked residents to conserve water or declared states of “water emergency” after a lack of backup power created supply issues. Wara suggested local water districts need to assume some responsibility for that element of the shutoffs.

The blackout’s impact was sweeping: K-12 school closures, some of them district-wide, shut down hundreds of public and private campuses for a full day or more; roadway congestion mounted as commuters navigated intersections with no working traffic signals; and small businesses that lacked backup power sources were forced to lose out on business. Food undoubtedly spoiled in fridges and freezers, or was otherwise discarded.

PG&E indicated in the days ahead of the event described the blackouts as a “last resort” option to mitigate wildfire risk. PG&E has reeled after its power lines were linked to devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires, including last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and leveled the Butte County town of Paradise.

Wara said the only way to prevent another large-scale shutoff like last week’s is to reorganize the grid in a way that can reduce “collateral damage.”

“That’s a process that requires a lot of time and care, and altering the architecture of the system, and it’s gonna take years,” he said.

Meanwhile, PG&E has submitted a proposal that would pay $11 billion to insurers and $8.4 billion to wildfire victims, while a competing plan by the company’s bondholders would pay the same amount to insurers, but $14.5 billion to fire victims for damages not covered under insurance.

‘Tone deaf’ amid dangers

Beyond the shutoff, the utility continues to be mired in mistakes of the past, as well as current public relations problems.

PG&E’s top gas executive, Mel Christopher, was no longer with the company as of Tuesday, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. Christopher was one of about 10 to 12 PG&E gas employees whom The Chronicle reported to have “wined and dined” top customers in Sonoma County, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the 2017 North Bay wildfires.

Cal Fire blamed PG&E’s power lines and other equipment for a dozen of the fires from that year, although it exonerated the utility in connection with the deadliest fire, the Tubbs Fire. That fire killed 22 people and burned much of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

On the eve of the shutoffs, PG&E told the federal judge overseeing its bankruptcy that its equipment issues may have caused nine wildfires – all of them small – in 2019 in Northern and Central California.

Bill Johnson, CEO of the utility’s parent company PG&E Corp., indicated he wanted Christopher removed.

“Everyone at PG&E needs to be working to better serve our customers and earn back their trust,” Johnson said in a statement. “The timing and location of the event ... was insensitive, inappropriate, and tone deaf. As such, it did not reflect the values of our company.”

PG&E’s gas operations were implicated in a devastating San Bruno explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes nine years ago.

How much did the power shutoff cost?

Wara estimated the total economic impact of last week’s blackout at somewhere between $1 billion and $2.5 billion depending on the exact breakdown between large business, small business and residential customers, but that the shutoff event likely “disproportionately impacted” the latter two groups.

That pattern, with burden unevenly carried by large numbers of residential customers, is likely to continue due to the geographic area where power will likely need to be shut off during similar weather events in the future, Wara said.

Wara says the broad impact, combined with poor customer communication, has eroded public trust in PG&E significantly.

“They have a serious trust issue and they did further damage to the trust the public has in them,” he said. “I think that puts the public at risk, and now there’s pushback against this program that may have saved lives.”

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.
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