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PG&E says electrical blackouts to prevent wildfires could happen for another 10 years

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George Avalos
The Mercury News

It could take up to a decade for PG&E to improve its electric system enough to avoid implementing widespread intentional power shutdowns to mitigate the risk of wildfires, the company’s chief executive told state regulators at a packed hearing Friday.

At an emergency meeting called to probe the embattled utility’s handling of last week’s mass blackouts, the state Public Utilities Commission grilled PG&E executives on what the PUC president called the “inadequate execution” of the unprecedented outages, which affected nearly 738,000 customers in 34 counties — or about 2 million people — across northern and central California.

“It’s probably a 10-year timeline” before PG&E can sufficiently improve its system to the point where such shutdowns are unnecessary, PG&E Chief Executive Officer William Johnson told the five-member panel, adding that the utility will get “better every year.”

“We are here to improve the quality of life, not burden it,” Johnson told the PUC commissioners. “Our desire is to provide power to people, not take it away.”

All five of the commissioners asked pointed questions — and some offered harsh observations — in connection with PG&E’s efforts to curb wildfire perils and how it handled the recent intentional power shutdowns.

“I was astounded” at the lack of PG&E’s preparation and efforts during the deliberate electricity outages, PUC President Marybel Batjer told the executives who had been called to attend the meeting.

“What we saw play out from PG&E cannot be repeated,” Batjer said during the hearing. “PG&E was not fully prepared.”

One of the major failures of PG&E during the power shutdowns, according to critics, included the collapse of a company website where people could find out how they were affected by potential electricity outages, as well the utility’s blunders in communicating with the public and government agencies regarding the shutoffs.

The decision to preemptively cut off power for such a vast swath of the state followed deadly wildfires in Amador and Calaveras counties in 2015, the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in 2017 and Butte County in 2018. PG&E’s equipment was linked to at least some of the fires in all three and was determined to be directly responsible for at least 19 fires during the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons.

Confronted with wildfire-related claims in the range of $30 billion, along with numerous other debts, PG&E filed for a $51.69 billion bankruptcy in January, seeking to reorganize its shattered finances.

At Friday’s hearings, PG&E executives noted that much of its service territory has been deemed at high risk for wildfires, particularly in the wake of the state’s most recent drought.

“We operate an electricity system in a tinderbox,” Andrew Vesey, head of PGE’s utility subsidiary, told the regulatory panel.

The utility’s improvements are expected to include the creation of microgrids so that power outages could be concentrated in very small areas. The company also intends to insulate certain lines as part of a quest to harden the system and intensify vegetation management to keep trees and shrubs away from the company’s equipment.

Still, Sumeet Singh, vice president for the company’s community wildfire safety program, warned that it is possible that public safety power shutoff events, known in regulatory parlance as PSPSs, might continue to be necessary regardless of PG&E’s efforts.

“The work that we are doing,” Singh said, “does not necessarily guarantee that we can eliminate PSPS events.”

In comments after the four-and-a-half-hour hearing was concluded, the PG&E CEO reiterated that to fashion a safe and reliable electricity system will require work over a period of several years, during which intentional power shutdowns could recur.



“Our goal over the next 10 years is to eliminate these (power shutoff) events,” Johnson said. “It will take some time to do that. Our goal is to have great service and continuous service.”

Despite the company’s repeated claims that it is working diligently to improve its performance and heighten the safety of its electricity system, PUC commissioners clearly were skeptical about the utility’s track record and ability to carry out its stated plans.

“We’ll be judged by outcomes and not by plans,” Batjer told Johnson.

Following the hours-long grilling of the executives by state regulators, members of the public lined up at the hearing Friday to give PG&E’s corporate leaders a piece of their mind.

“PG&E is an unreliable, irresponsible and dangerous mega-company,” said Shirley Bennett, a Santa Rosa resident. “The monopoly needs to be broken up.”

And many accused PG&E of making empty promises, noting that the risk of wildfires has been heightened by the utility’s failure to adequately maintain its equipment, even after such failures were determined to have caused deadly blazes in recent years. Some claimed that PG&E at times issues empty promises.

“Company executives promise that PG&E will do better next time,” said Melissa Kasnitz, staff counsel with Berkeley-based Center for Accessible Technology. “You should have done better this time.”

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©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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