Three men at PG&E decide when Californians go dark to stop fires

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Since an unprecedented blackout plunged millions of Californians into darkness last week, residents and state officials have questioned how utility giant PG&E Corp. came to the decision to cut the lights.

Now they have some answers.

In a report filed with California utility regulators on Thursday, the San Francisco-based company said three vice presidents are responsible for deciding whether the power goes out to keep electrical lines from igniting blazes: Michael Lewis, senior vice president of electric operations; Sumeet Singh, vice president of asset and risk management; and Ahmad Ababneh, vice president of electric operations on major projects and programs. Two more vice presidents will join the bunch in 2020.

PG&E said the utility has already provided the factors these officials take into account in deciding. In a September 2018 document, the company said it uses national fire danger ratings, National Weather Service warnings, humidity levels, temperature, terrain and local climate to weigh shutoffs. The utility said at the time that it expected to cut service once or twice a year. So far in 2019, it has shut power at least thrice.

PG&E has been taking more extreme measures to keep its lines from sparking blazes since a series of catastrophic wildfires in 2017 and 2018 saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forced it into bankruptcy. Last week's blackout -- the largest one the utility has ever orchestrated -- has drawn outrage from politicians who said the outage was too extensive and that the company did a poor job of communicating it to customers.

"There are crucial lessons to learn from this event, and we are committed to learning and doing a better job across the board," PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said in a letter accompanying the report.

PG&E also said in the filing that the company's board of directors doesn't directly influence shutoff decisions. But it noted that a board committee oversees the company's wildfire safety plan -- which includes shutoffs.

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