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 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.”

But “we simply could not continue to run parts of this system given the risks to public safety,” he said.

Company officials said the decision was based on forecast wind gusts that would exceed the safety threshold of 55 mph for transmission lines and 45 mph for distribution lines, which connect individual households to the larger transmission lines.

Sameet Singh, vice president in charge of the community wildfire safety program, said winds in excess of 45 mph were recorded in at least 21 counties affected by the blackout and in excess of 50 mph in at least 15.

They included peak gusts of 77 mph on Mount St. Helena in Sonoma County and 55 mph in northern Napa County, he said.

The company's crews discovered at least 11 instances of weather-related damage that could have ignited fires had the power lines been energized, said PG&E spokeswoman Ari Vanrenen.

The shutdown began early Wednesday morning for some counties and then Wednesday night for another group, but by Thursday afternoon, as winds abated, most were given the “all-clear” sign, releasing an army of workers more than 6,300 people strong to begin inspecting more than 25,000 miles of power line - about equal to the circumference of the Earth, Singh noted - to ensure any damage was isolated before energy was restored to them.

More than half of the 738,000 ? PG&E customers affected by the outage had power restored late Thursday evening, Vanrenen said, including numerous areas of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma. The process was like patchwork, though, and about 312,000 customers were still in the dark.

PG&E had consistently said it would take time to get everyone back on line because of the need for deliberate inspections and requirements to isolate and repair damage where there is any.

“Visual inspections are necessary since circuit breakers, reclosing devices and fuses that are typically used to help detect any potential damage from a weather event like a winter storm are also de-energized during a (shut-off) for safety reasons,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said. “Some locations require workers to travel on narrow access roads. In locations with no vehicle access, crews might need to hike in remote and mountainous areas to inspect equipment.”

Staff Writer Chantelle Lee contributed to this report.

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