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PG&E gets an earful from lawmakers at hearing over outage

PG&E executives received withering criticism from state regulators Friday over a preemptive blackout that left millions without power, some for days.

Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest power company, was rebuked at an emergency meeting convened by the state’s Public Utilities Commission to examine how decisions were made and carried out in last week’s power shut-off. The operation affected more than 700,000 customers of the utility in Northern and Central California and about ?66,000 customers in Sonoma County.

PG&E acted after weather forecasts pointed to a severe fire risk across much of its territory because of hot, dry conditions and high winds. Its equipment has repeatedly been blamed for deadly wildfires, leaving it facing liability claims that have helped put it into bankruptcy.

Whatever the company’s good intentions, regulators left no doubt Friday that the execution of the blackout - the largest such operation in the state’s history - was unacceptable.

Marybel Batjer, president of five-member commission, said she was “astonished” at PG&E’s lack of modern technology and services, citing the website crashes and communication system failures that added to last week’s upheaval.

“This is not hard,” she told PG&E executives. “You guys have failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff. You need to get there now. Not at the end of the year. Now.”

Bill Johnson, the company’s chief executive, defended the decision to cut off electricity, even as he acknowledged failures in PG&E’s use of the strategy. He told the commission that he looked forward to a future in which the company no longer needed power shut-offs to prevent wildfires but said it would most likely take a decade to reach that point.

“We, I, acknowledge these critical errors,” he said. “I apologize for the hardship.”

Many customers lost power without notice. The power shut-offs also forced businesses and schools to close and endangered people with life-threatening health conditions.

The hearing, which lasted 4½ hours, provided the fullest look yet at how PG&E came to make the unusually broad move, and who was responsible.

Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president for electrical operations, told the commission that workers in the field had simply carried out his order. “They didn’t make the decision,” Lewis said. “I did.”

But company officials said they have been working to correct their failures. They reported an upgrade to the website that repeatedly crashed during the blackout, preventing customers and local governments from getting information.

They also said that the utility was stepping up inspections and upgrading its power lines, and that it would ensure that customers had better access to assistance centers in future power shut-offs.

Johnson said alternative ways of delivering electricity needed more consideration to avoid such episodes and to deal with the growing impact of climate change. Microgrids, which generate power for a concentrated area and can be turned on and off independently, are one possibility, he said.

“No one ever wants to see anything like that again,” Johnson said of the power shut-offs. “There is commentary out there that we can’t be trusted to do this. I’m really looking for the best answer here for the public.”

Before last week’s shut-offs, PG&E had used the strategy for about 100,000 customers in separate events.

“We need to get better at doing it,” said Andrew Vesey, who oversees the company’s utility subsidiary and its operations. “The buck stops with me.”

Batjer said the commission expected PG&E to submit a detailed report about the power shut-offs within the next few days. “I really do believe that we all will be judged by the outcomes, not the plans,” she said.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat who has been a frequent critic of PG&E, issued a statement saying the company was “attempting belatedly to rebuild their support services” to protect customers.

“It would have been better for PG&E leaders to detail exactly why it’s going to take them 10 years to build the resilient electrical system we should already have so that power shutdowns are truly a rare last resort,” he said.

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