California’s top utilities regulator on Friday said she was astounded by the lack of basic preparation Pacific Gas & Electric officials took in readying for a pre-emptive power shut-off that affected more than 2 million people.
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson and other executives with the utility appeared before the CPUC board during the emergency meeting early Friday afternoon.
California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer said that the utility failed on so many levels on simple matters.
PG&E shut off power to 700,000 customer accounts as a wildfire prevention method. Customers complained of overloaded call centers and a website that crashed throughout the Oct. 9 event.
Local officials said they were left in the dark as well.
Batjer tore into the utility for still not having a solid communication plan in place for any future shutoffs.
“You said we need to get there. You need to get there now — not at the end of the year,” said Batjer. “How many counties have you talked to since last week? How many county managers? Or how many direct EOC managers have you called and said, ‘Oops, we blew it.’ And we’re gonna have a better relationship and it’s going to start today.”
Johnson said it could take as long as a decade for the utility to get to the point where widespread safety outages are not necessary when fire danger is high. According to the CEO, it will take 10 years for “micro-grids” and covered lines are installed in all the required areas.
He also pushed back against the assertion that PG&E executives implemented the Public Safety Power Shutoff to reduce their own liability, insisting that it was done for public safety.
“I have heard and read a lot of skepticism about our actions. I hear skepticism about whether the shutoff was truly necessary and whether the scope was too large; skepticism that we did this to save our own skin, rather than for public safety. The fact is we did this for one reason and that is safety,” Johnson said.
He also pointed out the number of instances of damage found after the shutdown as proof that the utility did the right thing.
“We have more than a hundred confirmed cases of wind damage to our electric system — trees and branches and other things coming into contact with our lines and power lines on the ground,” said Johnson. “These instances were wide spread across the system. Contact of this type is known to cause ignition when lines are energized.”
Johnson told state regulators he expects the utility to get better with each new pre-emptive outage as it works to upgrade its equipment so blackouts affect fewer people.
Johnson insisted the Oct. 9 outage was the right call, but admitted the utility could have done much better executing it. He said that the power restoration benchmark that the utility used during the shutdown was “unacceptable” and promised that the company would aim for restoration within 48 hours in the future.
PG&E also addressed issues with the company’s website, saying that traffic to the site increased by 250 times during the PSPS. That translated to about 1.7 million hits on the site per hour.
Community advocate Mindy Spatt said that while she is pleased with the PUC calling the emergency meeting, she remained skeptical about the meeting producing any substantial results.
“I think the public utilities commission is just as disgusted with PG&E as everyone else is,” said Spatt. “The utilities commission authorized the PG&E shutoff program that turned into such an utter debacle. So obviously, the commission needs to hold PG&E more accountable and needs to impose stricter standards on this company.”
State Senator Scott Wiener said PG&E is too used to getting its way.
“Their CEO continues to just blanket defend this blackout affecting millions of people,” said Wiener. “They’re not self-aware of how impactful in a negative way their actions are.”