Californians Are Angry at PG&E Over Blackouts — And They’re Not Sparing Newsom

A sign calling for PG&E to turn the power back on was placed by the side of the road in Calistoga following the utility's widespread power shutoff on Oct. 10, 2019. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Californians are skeptical that PG&E needed to shut off power to millions of people in recent weeks to avoid wildfires, and overwhelmingly say the utility is handling the blackouts poorly, according to a new poll by Change Research provided exclusively to KQED News.

But reflecting the tough choices in front of both PG&E and public officials, a majority of respondents — 55% — said they would rather lose power for several days than risk a wildfire, and just one-third of those polled said the decision to shut off power should be handed over to government officials.

The online survey was conducted by Change Research after the first round of shutoffs cut power to about 2 million residents earlier this month. Its release comes as PG&E begins another round of preemptive blackouts in Northern California: The utility plans to cut power to 179,000 customers in 17 counties starting Wednesday afternoon.

Change Research co-founder Pat Reilly said the poll shows growing dissatisfaction with PG&E, noting that the company's unfavorability ratings have grown significantly in recent months — a dissatisfaction that transcends partisan divides.

"PG&E had a 49% unfavorable rating when we started our monthly California poll in February of this year. Eight months later, that has risen to 61% unfavorable," she said, adding that only 9 percent of those polled rated the company favorably.

Californians were evenly split on who should have the power to decide when to shut down power — about a third of respondents said the “utilities know best," while another third said state regulators or government officials should make the call, and another third said they don't know.

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The poll indicates that the public doesn't blame only PG&E for what’s happening: They’re also dissatisfied with Gov. Gavin Newsom, despite his vocal criticism of PG&E leadership management in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, Newsom demanded in a letter to PG&E CEO Bill Johnson that the utility do a better job communicating with customers and work to limit the number of people impacted by blackouts.

Despite Newsom’s tough rhetoric, respondents gave the governor’s handling of the incident low marks — just 7 percent of those polled said his response to the blackouts was “excellent”; 33% rated it average or above-average; and 47% said the governor’s handling was below-average or very poor. Republicans were much harder on Newsom, with 83% saying he handled it “very” poorly.

The Legislature got marks similar to the governor.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Newsom said he shares the public's frustration and that he's continuing to work on solutions to help protect the public.

“If PG&E had prioritized safety over profits and had updated their infrastructure like other utilities, we would not be in this situation," said spokeswoman Vicky Waters.

"That is certainly frustrating for the governor and it’s no doubt frustrating for the public. The governor has aggressively held the utility accountable and also provided state personnel, state funding, and changes to state laws, to help reduce the fallout for Californians from PG&E's decisions."

Another Governor, Another Power Crisis
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Overall, just 20% of respondents said they viewed the first round of outages as necessary, with 53% saying they were not. And 63% rated PG&E’s handling of the incident below-average or very poor — a response that crossed party lines.

But things get more complicated when you dig a bit deeper.

In bad news for PG&E, a plurality of respondents — 40% — said they think PG&E should be broken up into smaller regional utilities; 30% supported a public takeover of the embattled utility. Just 1 percent backed what the poll called “a public bailout.”

And reflecting the growing frustration with PG&E, Californians appear to have soured on the entire investor-owned-utility structure, in which publicly traded companies get a monopoly to provide a utility to the public, and receive a guaranteed profit margin, but are regulated by the state.

A solid 62% of those polled said it’s a bad idea to have a utility’s shares traded on Wall Street. And 77% agreed with the statement, “It’s always a bad idea to have investor owned public utilities. They’re more concerned about shareholders’ returns than creating a safe infrastructure for the public.”

"Californians have lost faith in large, Wall Street-driven publicly traded companies to put people first," Reilly said. "The plurality of Californians, 40%, want the basics — light, power and public safety — to be managed by smaller, regional utilities that will prioritize community interest over investor interest. Another 30% want the state to take these companies over."

But interestingly, just 18% of those polled blame inadequate PG&E equipment as the biggest driver of wildfires in recent years — even though the utility has admitted fault in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in modern California history and is blamed by state investigators for other destructive blazes in recent years.

Still, 30% said inadequate forest management was to blame for recent wildfires, and 29% said climate change is the culprit.

The conflicting feelings among poll respondents in some ways mirror the evolving position of state lawmakers around how to deal with PG&E.

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Last year, in the wake of the 2017 North Bay Fires, lawmakers rejected efforts by PG&E and Gov. Jerry Brown to change liability laws and make it harder to sue utilities that cause damage but didn't act negligently.

They balked after pressure from victims' groups and insurance companies. But they also seemed reticent to back anything resembling a bailout for a company many lawmakers said they couldn't trust.

But months later in 2018, the Legislature did pass reforms aimed in part at keeping PG&E out of bankruptcy — a route the utility ultimately decided to take anyway.

And this summer, lawmakers and Newsom worked together to craft a bill that will provide PG&E and other utilities some financial backstop moving forward, so that another utility doesn't end up in bankruptcy court if it sparks another disastrous fire.

Napa state Sen. Bill Dodd, who has been deeply involved in the wildfire and utility debate in Sacramento, told KQED's Political Breakdown podcast this week that his view of what should happen to PG&E has changed over the past two years.

"I am open to all alternatives," Dodd said when asked about whether the entire structure of PG&E should be changed.

He called on Newsom to create a team of experts to study what kind of restructuring is possible, both technically and financially.

"Let's figure out what is the art of the possible with our electrical grid going forward. This is insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results with PG&E," he said.

The poll of 2,605 Californians has approximately a 1.9 percent margin of error. It was conducted online between Oct. 15 and 18 — the week after the first round of PG&E blackouts. Thirty-two percent of those polled said they were in an area where there were blackouts.

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