PG&E Power Safety Shutoffs Could Continue for 10 Years, Says CEO

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson spoke to state utility regulators about power safety shutoffs on Friday. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

PG&E CEO and President Bill Johnson said Friday it could take up to 10 years for the utility to improve its system enough to not have to rely on power shutoffs to prevent wildfires during dry, windy conditions.

Johnson's comments came about a week after the utility cut power to about 2 million people in Northern and Central California, saying the outages were needed due to high winds and dry conditions that could spark wildfires.

Johnson, who spoke at an emergency meeting of the California Public Utility Commission in San Francisco, said the number of power shutoffs will decline over the next decade as PG&E reroutes the electric grid so it can shut off power to smaller areas, invests in microgrids to keep power on during emergencies and updates thousands of miles of power lines in fire-prone areas.

Pacific Gas and Electric Power Shutoffs
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California Public Utility Commission President Marybel Batjer began the meeting at CPUC headquarters by telling PG&E that their handling of the power shutoff was "inadequate."

"I can tell you that you guys failed on so many levels, on fairly simple stuff," she said.

But while Johnson said that he was accountable for communication problems, he defended the shutoff, saying that the company did it for safety.

"One of the things that stands out in my mind is that we did not have any catastrophic fires in Northern and Central California. It’s hard to prove a negative," Johnson said.

Johnson also defended the utility's infrastructure.

"It is a misconception that we turned off power because our system is in shambles," Johnson said. "Our system is in pretty good shape. The [public safety power shutoff] was driven by a widespread wind event."

Utility executives said that they found about 100 instances where high winds damaged or presented a hazard to electrical equipment during the shutoff. They said that most of the damage involved vegetation, like trees, grass or brush coming into contact with power lines.

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Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E's community wildfire safety program, estimated that it could take 10 to 14 years for the company to finish updating about 7,100 miles of power lines in high fire risk areas, and 8 years to improve vegetation management on 25,000 miles of lines in high-risk areas.

Commissioners Lambast PG&E for Failing to Assist People With Disabilities

During the marathon hearing, commissioners repeatedly pushed executives on how they reached out to people with disabilities.

PG&E’s most recent shutoff event affected more than 30,000 customers who take part in the utility’s medical baseline program. People who use powered medical devices, including oxygen concentrators and motorized wheelchairs, pay lower rates for gas and electricity by applying to the program with a doctor's note. Under rules approved by the commission, utilities now use medical baseline status to identify and warn vulnerable customers before and during a power shutoff.

Left in the Dark
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But the program is an imperfect proxy for medically vulnerable communities, as Commissioner Liane M. Randolph noted.

Public health officers and consumer advocates say that the program under-represents who’s at risk in a shutoff area. For instance, people who live in buildings that receive just one electric bill — or in mobile home communities — can’t register.

And while the medical baseline program itself dates back decades, it’s only this year that PG&E began to use it as a warning mechanism in this kind of emergency. At the same time, a spokesman for San Diego Gas & Electric, the utility that pioneered public safety shutoffs after the 2007 Witch Fire, pointed out that regulations make eligible people who declare that they need air conditioning to be comfortable for a variety of medical conditions.

It's not yet clear how well PG&E warned medical baseline customers about the most recent shutoff event. According to earlier filings with the CPUC, PG&E warns its medical baseline customers via text, email or automated call.

Marissa Shaw of Richmond, a member of the disability community, speaks during the public comment period of Friday's CPUC meeting. Shaw said she was not informed about PG&E's power outage because she's not eligible for the medical baseline program, since her landlord pays her utility bill.
Marissa Shaw of Richmond, a member of the disability community, speaks during the public comment period of Friday's CPUC meeting. Shaw said she was not informed about PG&E's power outage because she's not eligible for the medical baseline program, since her landlord pays her utility bill. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

If the customer doesn't confirm the warning, the utility will send someone out to knock on the door, said PG&E Senior Vice President Laurie M. Giammona.

If nobody answers the door, the utility hangs a tag, and considers the outreach successful. Giammona said that PG&E workers left door tags for about 700 people last week.

Deborah Kaplan of Oakland, who uses an electric chair, bed and ventilator and requires the use of an elevator, explained that being notified about power shutoffs "isn't all that helpful."

"If this is going to be a reality that we're going to have to get used to, then people who rely on power for survival need to have backup," she said.

Deborah Kaplan (left) of Oakland and Marge Hall (right) of Berkeley waited 3.5 hours to speak during the public comment portion of Friday's CPUC meeting in San Francisco.
Deborah Kaplan (left) of Oakland and Marge Hall (right) of Berkeley waited 3.5 hours to speak during the public comment portion of Friday's CPUC meeting in San Francisco. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

The CPUC’s head of safety and enforcement policy, Elizaveta Malashenko, told lawmakers in August that the medical baseline program wasn’t designed for emergency response.

Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves also wondered why some communities got backup generators, when others didn’t.

"Was wealth a factor?" she asked PG&E's Singh about why Calistoga got a generator.

Singh said that was not the case.

PG&E Executives Detail Communication Breakdowns

PG&E's Giammona said that the utility had not anticipated the number of people who would access the website.

She said that about 1.7 million users per hour were trying to use the PG&E website during the power shut offs. Normally, only about 7,000 users access the site per hour on a regular day.

CPUC President Batjer, who was present for some of PG&E’s decision making during the shutoff, said that employees too junior to make important decisions about technology were the ones tasked with system testing.

CPUC President Marybel Batjer listens as PG&E executives speak at an emergency meeting in San Francisco on Oct. 18, 2019.
CPUC President Marybel Batjer listens as PG&E executives speak at an emergency meeting in San Francisco on Oct. 18, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

She said that she was "astonished at the lack of infrastructure" for a company of PG&E's size.

Batjer noted that dozens of local governments complained that they could not reach PG&E during the shutoff.

PG&E executives described calls with county and tribal governments where more than 1,000 people from local and tribal governments were on the line.

"Today a parade of PG&E executives told us what we already know — their October [power shutoff] was a massive failure in execution," state Sen. Jerry Hill told KQED via email.

Hill has been a consistent critic of PG&E since 2010, when one of the utility's natural gas transmission lines exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people in his district.

"It’s good to know they are attempting to belatedly rebuild their support services to meet customer needs ... But it would have been better for PG&E leaders to detail exactly why it’s going to take them 10 years to build the resilient electrical system we should already have, so that power shutdowns are truly a rare, last resort."

The California Senate opened its own investigation into how PG&E handled the shutoff on Thursday.

Molly Peterson contributed to this report.

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