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PG&E power shutdown slammed by local governments

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PG&E’s massive planned outage last week appeared less motivated to protect Californians from another wildfire sparked by electrical lines and more so by a desire to shield the bankrupt utility from yet more fire-related liability, a handful of local governments including Santa Rosa and Sonoma County told state regulators this week.

“The way PG&E implemented the (power shutdown) supports the inference that the utility’s primary goal was protecting itself from liability, and that considerations of the resulting human and economic damage were, if examined at all, secondary,” according to a filing submitted Tuesday to the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities like PG&E.

Had the outage lasted another 24 hours, “PG&E could have seen as many customer deaths as in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires,” the filing alleged. Those devastating recent blazes resulted in more than 100 deaths, most the result of the Camp fire in November 2018 and the Tubbs fire in October 2017.

“It is also clear that PG&E has no idea what it is doing when it comes to de-energization and is terrified,” stated the filing by the city and the county, which were joined by the counties of Mendocino, Napa and Santa Barbara. “The lack of confidence PG&E has in its infrastructure is certainly apparent. ... This has got to stop.”

PG&E’s planned outage last week affected more than 2 million Californians including hundreds of thousands in the North Bay, leaving many confused and unsatisfied customers in its wake. The outage prompted an apology from CEO Bill Johnson, who admitted PG&E was not adequately prepared.

But the utility has stood by its intentional blackout, which was intended to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires like those in 2017 and 2018 that state fire investigators have traced to PG&E equipment.

PG&E has said that winds gusted over 50 mph in 16 counties affected by the outage and that it identified more than 100 instances of damage to affected equipment — such as a tree into a line that could have caused a fire if the power was on. The utility faces roughly $30 billion in liabilities from 2017 and 2018 wildfires.

PG&E did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday about the specific allegations and criticisms in the local governments’ filing.

The local governments noted that while PG&E prepared a plethora of public websites to help people prepare for the outage, a surge of traffic soon overtook its capacity to keep the websites up and the utility’s online resources “never fully recovered.”

“Not only was PG&E’s website meltdown a failure to plan ahead and a massive inconvenience, but it placed the public at risk,” the filing said. “Individuals who require time, planning, and assistance to leave their homes for a location with electricity have to know whether they will lose power and when, and to have some assurance that the location they intend to go to has power.”

The outage maps PG&E made public compounded its communications problem. Some residents and businesses found themselves within the apparent boundaries of the outage, only to have the lights stay on.

Those maps appear to be significantly inaccurate due to an apparent 20% margin PG&E built into its publicly available mapping components, according to the filing, which added that PG&E representatives at various local emergency operations centers appeared to have different outage maps based on internal information, which appeared to be correct.

“Why PG&E did not provide those maps to its public safety partners is unfathomable,” the filing said.

At one point, the local governments’ filing invoked a many-headed mythological monster when describing their attempts to work with utility officials on the outage program.

“The experience of working with PG&E to effect real changes to its de-energization program has been like battling the Hydra,” says the filing, which is signed by San Francisco attorney Megan Somogyi on behalf of the local governments.

The filing raised questions about PG&E’s apparent ability to keep the power on in certain critical facilities. The Butte County Jail, it noted, regained power after the county told PG&E the lights at the facility were out.

“It is apparent that PG&E has a good deal more flexibility in its system (than) it would have us believe” when it comes to precisely controlling who does and does not have power, the local governments noted.

“PG&E must provide more transparency into its de- and re-energization capabilities,” the filing said, “and it must have a better plan for addressing wildfires and other emergencies that start during a de-energization than refusing to turn the power on until the wind has subsided.”

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