Outrage over PG&E blackout spurs call to rein in utility, improve its handling of fire risk

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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.

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.

That public reaction has sharpened the distrust of PG&E, which declared bankruptcy in January amid $30 billion in liabilities tied to deadly and destructive Northern California wildfires in the past two years linked to its power lines.

The shut-offs have added fuel to calls for lawmakers and regulators to take a stronger hand in overseeing the utility and the way it operates its grid to for safety amid extreme fire weather. PG&E must be more clear and transparent about its decision making in planned shut-offs, local and state officials say, and must bear more responsibility for the fallout when it does turn out the lights.

“The time for accountability is coming,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose North Coast district was heavily impacted by the outages. “If PG&E executives can’t step up to the plate and change their corporate culture, then California will do it for them.”

The utility is operating in a new era of scrutiny, heightened by its bankruptcy case and the role its equipment played in sparking a string of deadly and destructive wildfires over the past two years in Northern California, where 129 people died and more than 20,000 homes burned, leveling neighborhoods and communities.

A trial next year that will determine whether it was responsible for the worst of the 2017 blazes, the Tubbs fire in Sonoma and Napa counties. Farther north, in Butte County, where the Camp fire killed 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes last year, PG&E told regulators it found broken equipment on a nearly 100-year-old transmission tower that carried the lines said by state investigators to have started the fire.

Under one of many new laws to emerge from the deadly fires, state natural resources officials will be watching over how the utility maintains its lines and clears surrounding brush to curb fire risk. That grid is woefully outdated and in disrepair because of decades neglect and weak oversight from the California Public Utilities Commission, said McGuire.

He said his constituents, in a fire-scarred district stretching from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border, had again been left to suffer the consequences this past week. The outages hit cool, coastal Humboldt County, where thousands lost power because lines serving the region run from more fire-prone Trinity County to the northeast.

Similar situations played out across utility’s vast service area.

“It’s beyond clear that PG&E has lacked the basic fundamentals to successfully execute such a large and complicated outage,” McGuire said. “There needs to be criteria that each and every utility much meet in emergency and community preparedness prior to turning out the lights.”

The economic hit to affected Californians may be staggering. By some estimates, the losses across the 35 counties involved in the outages could hit $2.5 billion, according to Michael Wara, a Stanford-based expert in climate and energy policy. In Sonoma County, the economic impact of a widespread outage could be as much as $35 million a day, according to a recent Moody’s analysis requested this summer by the county’s Economic Development Board.

The estimated cost to a small business is an average of $7,000 a day, said Sheba Person-Whitley, the agency’s executive director.

“Business have been closed for days, there will be significant losses,” Person-Whitley said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said the shutdown has cost the city an estimated $250,000 in costs to cover additional services and staffing, including extra police and firefighters on duty. Schwedhelm said he supports cutting electricity to prevent another disastrous fire, but he said there must be clear evidence it’s needed because of the costs to local governments, businesses and families.

“That’s money that could have gone to providing services to our community,” Schwedhelm said. “I’m not thrilled at having to do this every time PG&E decides to turn the power off.”

Right now, local governments say they have little say in the decision making that goes into power shut-offs and no way to intervene. They have tried to press their case with the Public Utilities Commission but have little show for it.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore blamed the commission’s “arcane” process, one he said has not allowed the county’s concerns to be heard. Another fire season will have come and gone before that happens, they fear.

Gore, who holds a top leadership post on the state association of California counties, was scathing in his review of the PG&E’s planning for medically fragile populations — those who most rely on power for their medical care and to get around.

PG&E was so guarded with its outage plans, Gore said, that when a Sonoma County representative was sent to its San Francisco headquarters to coordinate this week, that person was sequestered in a locked room outside the emergency operations center, the command post where many of the decisions were made.

“For a group that’s in charge of a public trust responsibility to say this is for safety then keep all information behind locked doors? That doesn’t smell right,” Gore said. “We need to push hard on the state to not allow public safety decisions to be made by for-profit corporation.”

Critics of the shutdown had a timely outlet in the regular meeting Thursday of the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.

“The big question they’re asking is why PG&E’s criminal negligence has been allowed to continue to the point this is the only option, and why they continue to pay top dollar for a service that is either going to burn them down or shut them off?” Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman with The Utility Reform Network, said at the meeting.

Commission President Marybel Batjer lamented the company’s handling of the shut-off, saying it was unacceptable.

“The impacts to individual communities, to individual people, to the commerce of our state, to the safety of our people has been less than exemplary,” Batjer said, adding, “We cannot accept it as the new normal and we won’t.”

Under new laws inspired by the past two years of wildfires, California’s utilities must spend at least $5 billion on safety upgrades for infrastructure over the next five years. Another law requires utilities to limit the impact of planned power shutdowns on low-income people who rely on electricity to run life-support equipment.

PG&E has already begun to replace old power poles with fire resistant ones and explore where it might move power lines underground, which costs millions of dollars per mile.

Meanwhile, green energy supporters are capitalizing on the intersection of concern over climate change and the safety of legacy electrical grids. They are using this moment to promote their vision for a safer, more localized power network, pointing to microgrid projects in Bodega Bay and Oakmont.

“We have to do more than trim trees,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “We need to be investing in long term solutions.”

The county has for years had funding available to help move power lines underground in select communities. But the criteria, established years ago and before recent catastrophic fires, prioritizes those projects for historic communities like Freestone where beautification was the goal, according to Hopkins. That focus must shift to safety, she said.

But planned electrical outages will remain part of utilities’ toolbox to combat catastrophic fire, officials said, and residents will need to brace for more of them in the years to come.

The tactic has been used in for more than a decade in Southern California, where San Diego Gas & Electric is held up as a model for how to effectively cut power for targeted areas in communities. Records of power shut-offs between 2013 and 2018 show the blackouts typically impacted fewer than 1,000 customers.

PG&E only started cutting power during dangerous fire weather last year, under pressure from state officials and mounting liabilities from the 2017 and 2018 fires.

In lawsuits, people who lost loved ones and homes in those infernos have argued PG&E is responsible for damages from fires started by electricity even if it wasn’t the utility’s equipment that sparked the flames. They are to blame, victims say, because the company didn’t cut power during periods of extreme fire weather.

Sacramento lobbyist Patrick McCallum, who lost his Santa Rosa home in the Tubbs fire, is part of a group of fire victims who want wholesale change to PG&E’s approach to grid maintenance and public safety.

Unlike many who criticized the power shut-offs, McCallum said the outages brought him a sense of calm — to know the electricity would be off, the miles of transmission and distribution lines crisscrossing the region temporarily harmless.

He and his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, barely escaped from flames two years ago. Like so many survivors, they remain keenly aware of what’s at stake should another calamitous fire break out.

“If you’re a wildfire victim, you aren’t happy about it, but you know what it’s like to go through that wildfire,” McCallum said.

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