California’s top regulator excoriated top executives of the state’s largest utility even as Pacific Gas & Electric repeatedly said they know they failed to meet public expectations when it cut the power to more than 2 million people last week.
Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, called the emergency meeting Friday and ordered the executives to attend and explain themselves. She said she was “absolutely astounded” by what she thought were simple preparedness steps the utility could have taken.
“You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff,” Batjer said.
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San Francisco-based PG&E announced around 2 p.m. on Oct. 8 that they would be shutting off power at midnight to more than 700,000 customer accounts in parts of northern and central California, saying that high wind forecasts could damage equipment and spark wildfires. The drastic measure caused long lines at supermarkets and hardware stores as people rushed to buy ice, coolers, flashlights and batteries.
After the power was cut Oct. 9, cars backed up at traffic lights that had gone dark. Schools and universities canceled classes. Many businesses closed, only accepted cash or had to guide customers with flashlights. Customers complained of overloaded call centers and a website that kept crashing.
Power was fully restored on Oct. 12.
At the meeting Friday, PG&E executives swore they only had the public’s safety in mind when they cut off the power and promised to do better.
Andy Vesey, a PG&E executive, added that they did not think broadly enough and underestimated the needs of their customers and local governments.
“We have to develop a mindset, or culture, of anticipation,” he said.
Bill Johnson, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp, said the utility will get better with each new pre-emptive outage as it works to upgrade its equipment so blackouts affect fewer people.
Batjer demanded the executives initiate a series of corrective actions, including a goal of restoring power within 12 hours, not the utility’s current 48-hour goal.
Berkeley resident Marg Hall said he plans to speak during the public comment portion of Friday’s meeting. The disability rights advocate said the outages are more than an inconvenience for some people with disabilities and the elderly.
“Friends, that even if their power wasn’t shut off, suffered health consequences from the stress of knowing that they were going to be abandoned,” she said.
Wildfires in California are often caused by downed power lines and other utility equipment. A fire last year sparked by PG&E’s equipment mostly destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has blasted the utility for what he called decades of mismanagement, underinvestment and lousy communication. Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins asked a committee Thursday to “begin investigating and reviewing options to address the serious deficiencies” with PG&E’s current process.
On Friday, Newsom appointed Caroline Thomas Jacobs as the first director of the state’s new Wildfire Safety Division, which was created earlier this year and tasked with approving utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans and connecting them with independent experts to assess the safety of electrical equipment.
PG&E said Monday its systems were damaged in more than 100 places — spots that could have been a potential source of ignition for a wildfire.