Outrage over PG&E blackout spurs call to rein in utility, improve its handling of fire risk
Cloverdale Unified School District superintendent Jeremy Decker got to work early Wednesday morning to check on what he expected to be a darkened campus at the outset of what would become a three-day power outage for several million people in Northern and Central California.
To his chagrin, the lights were on.
Decker had spent hours Tuesday on the phone with PG&E to get an answer to his question: Would the electricity be cut to his four campuses, serving about 1,400 students in Sonoma County’s northernmost city?
PG&E’s own outage map showed much of Cloverdale in an area affected by the shutdown.
But no one at the San Francisco-based utility could provide an answer, he said.
One representative told Decker that he might be able to decipher the information on an internal circuitry map but it was proprietary and he couldn’t share it. Instead, he referred Decker to PG&E’s beleaguered website - one largely inoperable under the weight of so many customer queries.
Forced to decide without a clear guidance from the utility, Decker chose to close the schools for two days, alerting about 150 staff not to come to work and his students’ families to keep their children home. Then he arrived the next morning to find the electricity on.
“I’m so frustrated,” Decker said.
Decker’s home was destroyed in the 2017 North Bay firestorm, so he knows the risks that come with keeping electricity coursing through power lines amid high winds and low humidity, when any spark in a dry landscape could start the next disastrous wildfire.
The shut-offs may well have prevented a major fire. PG&E reported finding at least 50 instances of “weather-related damage” to its electrical system during follow-up inspections across the vast outage territory. Thirteen reports were from the North Bay, with about half from Sonoma County. The damage included downed lines and brush resting on lines.
But by nearly every other measure, PG&E’s unprecedented move to cut electricity for more than 730,000 customer accounts - and many more people - was also full of failures, dealing incalculable hardships to residents and businesses. The blowback for the state’s largest utility has been swift and harsh. From a livid Gov. Gavin Newsom to merchants with shuttered shops and people in darkened homes, Californians have lambasted PG&E for cutting power to a overly broad swath of the state.
“We are seeing the scale and scope of something that no state in the 21st century has experienced,” Newsom said in a press briefing Thursday where he accused PG&E of deep-seated greed and mismanagement. “And it’s happened because of neglect.”
“This can’t be the new normal,” Newsom said.
The utility’s top officials, in turn, conceded that they had bungled aspects of the historic shut-off.
PG&E was not able to inform lawmakers, public safety officials or customers specifically where the power would be turned off before it cut electricity starting Tuesday night.
The company hadn’t sufficiently planned for the increased traffic to its website - where it directed all queries - making its main public resource unavailable and unreliable.
PG&E officials scrambled to build a second website but that initially failed, too, leading state officials and big players in Silicon Valley, including Microsoft, to step in and help.
Hours after Newsom’s comments Thursday, Bill Johnson, PG&E chief executive officer, took the helm at the utility’s nightly press briefing and admitted the company he runs was “not adequately prepared” for the shut-off.
“Millions of people have been without a fundamental service they expect and deserve, that helps them live their lives and run their businesses, and this weighs heavily on everyone, including those of us at PG&E,” Johnson said.
“This is not how we want to serve you, and this is not how we want to run our business. We’re actually in the business of providing power, not taking power away.”
Earlier that day, utility executives were plainspoken about their high-stakes decision to turn off power.
“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision because the safety of our customers and communities must come first,” said Michael Lewis, senior vice president of electric operations.
Sharpens distrust of utility
But the outages - a measure adopted by PG&E just last year to curb the risk of its equipment causing catastrophic wildfires - showed that Californians are reluctant to accept that losing electricity on such a scale is necessary to prevent disaster. The measures seemed unwarranted to many of those in places where winds lacked their forecast punch or in places that were not especially fire prone.