PG&E’s CEO apologizes for communication issues as power starts being restored
As PG&E crews began restoring power to hundreds of thousands of customers across Northern California on Thursday, the company's CEO acknowledged the embattled utility had dropped the ball on customer communications during an unprecedented blackout aimed at averting another devastating wildfire caused by the company's equipment.
CEO Bill Johnson told reporters that PG&E's crashing website, inconsistent maps and overwhelmed call centers had provided insufficient resources to people struggling to make do without an essential service in parts of 34 counties.
“We were not adequately prepared to support the operational event,” Johnson said during a regularly scheduled news conference on the heels of a public evisceration by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “This will improve.”
Newsom blasted the planned shut-off as a necessity created by the utility's own system neglect, calling out the investor-owned utility for putting profits ahead of needed infrastructure maintenance and modernization that might have hardened it against high winds like those that caused massive, deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Where PG&E has described its difficult decision to turn off power for about 800,000 customers as a choice “between hardship and public safety,” given widely forecast extreme fire conditions, Newsom ridiculed their claim as “a false choice,” saying “decisions … not conditions” are to blame.
“This is not, from my perspective, a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades, neglect, a desire to advance not public safety, but profits,” the governor said during a news conference in Sacramento. “Over the course of years and years and years, the kind of hardening of the grid was not done. Those were decisions.”
The grim assessments, as well as the acknowledged potential for future shutdowns of the California grid as fire season continues, cast a pall over what for some Sonoma County residents looked like a return to normal, as lights went on in pockets around the county Thursday afternoon and evening.
Parts of the region could still be without power until Friday evening or late Friday night, according to PG&E's projections. Customers can check pge.com/outages for an interactive map with estimated restoration times.
“It was definitely inconvenient,” said John Ielmorini, a store lead at Oliver's Market at the Montecito Shopping Center, which regained power about 5:30 ? p.m.
Ielmorini said he and his coworkers were “happy” that the market had its power restored, adding that the store saw many fewer customers than usual. Though generators provided some overhead lights, most perishable foods had been moved to other locations to minimize waste - except for ice cream, which was given away to customers for free.
PG&E and the governor's news briefings reflected much of the emotion brewing amid the uncertainty and inconvenience that accompanied the unprecedented planned power outage, which was accompanied by gusting winds at high elevations but also darkened homes in low-lying urban centers where there was scarcely a breeze.
The role of PG&E equipment in several of California's most destructive and deadliest wildfires, including most of those that swept through the North Bay two years ago this week, has tainted the company's reputation, along with reports of high salaries and payouts during its pending bankruptcy. PG&E faces about $30 billion in liabilities for 2017 and 2018 wildfires linked to its equipment as the state's largest utility works through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
One of its transmission lines started the state's most destructive and deadly wildfire, the Camp fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 Butte County homes last November. The cause of the most destructive local fire, the Tubbs fire, remains in dispute, though Cal Fire investigators say it originated with private electrical equipment.
Johnson said it was exactly that kind of fire the utility was intent on avoiding when it made the call earlier this week to de-energize thousands of miles of power lines to ensure they weren't damaged or that tree limbs or trees did not fall across them and spark a fire.
“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 now how we want to run our business. We're actually in the business of providing power, not taking power away.”