PG&E's history with blackouts signaled trouble
SAN FRANCISCO - The state senators grilling the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. were upset - like millions of other Californians, some spent days in the dark when the nation's largest utility shut off power during windstorms this fall.
The lawmakers demanded that the executive explain why blackouts intended to prevent downed power lines from sparking deadly wildfires caused so much trouble of their own.
The explanation CEO Bill Johnson offered the Capitol hearing room: Several smaller outages that PG&E triggered in the year before its debacle began in mid-October went well, giving his company misplaced confidence.
“I think we got a little complacent that we had figured it out,” Johnson testified last month.
PG&E had not figured it out.
An Associated Press review shows widespread problems with the four “public safety power shutoffs” the utility started rolling out in 2018, a year before massive blackouts paralyzed much of California in recent months. Interviews and documents obtained under public records requests reveal persistent failures and broken promises that in some cases compromised public safety.
Even as PG&E assured regulators it was fixing the problems, the utility kept making many of the same mistakes, further undermining trust after its outdated equipment and negligence has been blamed for fires that killed nearly 130 people during 2017 and 2018.
Communication, a foundation of emergency management, was poor. PG&E's notifications of impending outages were haphazard at times, with some sent after the power was already out. Telecommunications companies, water providers and emergency managers did not always receive the early word they needed.
“We were surprised that PG&E provided no advanced warning to us,” an official with the city of Oroville's drinking water provider wrote state regulators about a June outage.
PG&E made important information hard to get. It was slow to distribute electronic maps showing who would lose power, making it harder for emergency responders to know exactly where to send resources. The utility also balked at providing the addresses of medically needy customers to local officials who planned to check on them in person.
Breakdowns afflicted even basic technology. In a region that's home to Silicon Valley and its thousands of computer programmers and engineers, PG&E had not prepared the website where it posted outage updates for a crush of customers, so it crashed. Tech experts from the state had to intervene.
The sound quality of some calls PG&E hosted during shutoffs was so poor that emergency responders and legislators had a hard time understanding updates. Even then, not everyone was invited.
“In the future, AT&T requests that it and other communications providers be included on any conference calls providing real time information,” the telecommunications giant protested to regulators after the June shutoff.
These and other early failures weren't widely recognized as harbingers of the issues that would overwhelm PG&E come mid-October, partly because the outages affected rural areas with less political and economic clout.
While the headline-making shutoffs affected more than 2 million people across much of PG&E's 70,000-square-mile service territory, the four initial blackouts affected tens of thousands in Northern California's Sierra Nevada foothills and famed wine valleys. They hit in October 2018 and then in June, September and early October of this year.
Among those who saw trouble building were regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.
The first shutoff was chaotic and the next three were not going according to the guidelines regulators had passed. Commission staff met more frequently with PG&E starting in the spring, using advice and persuasion rather than mandating changes.
“We, as the state, never got to the point where we had complete confidence in PG&E's ability to execute,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, the top California regulator overseeing blackouts.
Malashenko, deputy executive director of safety and enforcement policy, told the AP that the commission didn't act more aggressively because it has to balance punitive intervention with giving utilities a chance to self-correct.
“There needs to be some basic operational assumption that you can set up a conference call,” Malashenko said.
Some critics faulted regulators for not doing enough.
The utilities commission, a sprawling bureaucracy with a complex rule-making process, was “not aggressive enough early in setting clear requirements and standards,” said Melissa Kasnitz, legal director for the Center for Accessible Technology, which advocates for people with disabilities.