PG&E Will Issue Customer Credits for Blackouts, Details More Damage From High Winds

Firefighters check on, and flag, a downed PG&E power line along Chalk Hill Road in Windsor on Oct. 28, 2019 following a wind event during which power was shut off. PG&E released new details Wednesday on damage to its equipment across the state following early October's wind event, which marked the utility's first major shutoff this month. (PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images)

PG&E says that in the aftermath of its vast preemptive power outage in early October that it found dozens of locations on its electrical network where trees or equipment failures likely would have caused lines to arc — a condition that could lead to sparking wildfires.

The company's analysis, delivered in response to a directive from U.S. District Judge William Alsup, disclosed 13 instances of likely arc-producing damage in the fire-prone Santa Cruz Mountains.

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The company had reported finding more than 100 instances of damage to the 25,000 miles of electrical lines taken out of service during the blackout, which affected about 729,000 customers in 35 counties during a period of extreme fire weather between Oct. 9 and Oct. 12.

"It is possible that any one of these instances could have been a potential source of ignition had a PSPS (public safety power shutoff) not been initiated," the company said in an Oct. 14 press release.

The release was issued the same day Alsup, who is overseeing the company's criminal probation for violating federal pipeline safety laws, directed the company to tell him how many of those reported episodes involved damage that would have caused lines to arc and thus pose a dramatically heightened risk of sparking a fire.

In a brief report filed with the court Wednesday, PG&E said it found a total of 115 sites where damage had occurred — 74 involving wind-whipped trees or branches that had come into contact with power lines and 41 involving wind damage to equipment.

The utility said 44 cases of vegetation-related damage and a dozen cases of infrastructure damage could have led its lines to arc. Here's a map of those 56 locations:


The filing acknowledged that the company has no way of determining with any degree of certainty whether arcing would actually have occurred.

PG&E has said that inspections following its most widespread preemptive blackouts, which began last Saturday night, have uncovered at least 127 instances of damage to its lines and other equipment.

PG&E elected to turn off power to 970,000 customers — an estimated 2.5 million people — to avoid sparking fires during a prolonged episode of high winds and very dry weather. One station in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Geyserville recorded a gust of 102 mph Sunday morning.

The role of the company's equipment in touching off wildfires has been revived by the disclosure that a problem on one of its transmission lines occurred about the same time and place that the Kincade Fire began in The Geysers area of northeastern Sonoma County the night of Oct. 23.

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Cal Fire is investigating the cause of the blaze, which has burned nearly 77,000 acres and destroyed about 90 homes.

Last November's Camp Fire ignited when a piece of hardware on a PG&E transmission tower along the Feather River broke, allowing energized equipment to swing free and arc — sparking the blaze.

That incident rapidly became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes in and around the town of Paradise.

In other PG&E and PG&E blackout news:

If PG&E Turned Off Your Lights Oct. 9-12, You'll Get a Break on Your Bill

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday — and PG&E CEO Bill Johnson confirmed — that the utility will grant credits to the 728,980 customers who were cut off from electricity during the wide-reaching public safety power shutoff from Oct. 9 through Oct. 12. Newsom had suggested earlier this month that PG&E grant a $100 rebate to every residential customer whose lights were turned out and $250 to every business blacked out.

Johnson said at a media briefing Tuesday evening that PG&E was going along with Newsom's request after considering some of the hardships it imposed on customers — specifically, the collapse of the company's website and the woeful understaffing of its call centers.

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"Some of the things we did in that didn't go very well — our website and all those issues — and we thought this was probably a pretty good idea to show a little recognition to our customers of some of those things that didn't go right, " Johnson said.

PG&E says the credits will show up on customers' next bill. Our back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much the credits will cost the company: about $90 million, based on a guess that 85% of customers affected Oct. 9-12 were residential and 15% were businesses.

The next fight over the shutoffs and their impact on customers: Whether PG&E and the other big utilities should be allowed to charge people for periods when their power has been turned off. Newsom and some state legislators have called for a change in state law to prohibit such charges.

Credit details: Those who lost power in the later PG&E power shutoffs will not be eligible for credits related to those events, the company says, because: 1) it says it's cured its communications difficulties and 2) regulators have approved the shutoffs as a means to head off wildfires.

Here are the details on the credits: PG&E Statement on Oct. 9 Public Safety Power Shutoff Customer Bill Credit.

A Daily Plea From PG&E: Be Kind to Line Workers; They're There to Help

A regular feature of PG&E's nightly media briefings is a plea from the company's most senior executives for the public not to take out their frustrations on utility workers who are out in the field inspecting lines or restoring power.

Company leaders have said workers, including some who have come to California from other utilities across the nation to provide mutual aid, have been the targets of verbal abuse, threats and in some cases actual violence.

Tuesday evening, PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said a PG&E worker driving a PG&E vehicle had been intentionally run off the road "by an angry motorist."

Company officials have warned that some out-of-state workers might refuse to come to California with the level of PG&E-directed anger running so high. Johnson, who himself is a recent transplant from Tennessee, doubled down on that message.

"We have hundreds of visitors here helping us from other parts of the country, from the South, the East, the Midwest and here in the West" he said. "What impression do we want to give these visiting workers of California? So let's make those workers, and all the workers, feel safe and welcome."

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Catching Up: Utility Regulators Will Investigate Public Safety Power Shutoffs

With much of California under siege from a rapid-fire series of windstorms and vast preemptive power outages meant to prevent electrical equipment from sparking wildfires, state utility regulators announced earlier they're launching a formal investigation into the blackouts and taking steps to try to minimize them in the future.

The California Public Utilities Commission said the investigation will center on the increasingly broad public safety power shutoffs — or PSPS events — conducted by PG&E and the state's other major power providers.

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The agency will also re-examine how the utilities are using the shutoffs with an eye to reducing their scope. It will also take steps to ensure that the utilities do not charge customers for periods when their power has been turned off.

The CPUC says the inquiry will look into whether utilities — and especially PG&E – have complied with state regulations, raising the possibility the companies may face fines or other penalties.

Gov. Gavin Newsom applauded the CPUC probe — and said he's hoping the commission curbs the extensive use of blackouts to manage the state's wildfire threat.

“I want to see the CPUC launch a total reform of power shutoff rules and regulations," Newsom said in a statement. "Utilities must be held accountable and be aggressively penalized for their overreliance on PSPS, and the product of this investigation must be new rules and regulations to do that. I also want to see customers not charged for PSPS. It seems obvious, but under the current rules, utilities can do just that. It’s unacceptable and must be remedied.”

PG&E's Report on the Big Blackout Early in October

Under state regulations, utilities that impose a public safety power shutoff are required to report on the event within 10 days of . the incident. The report must include details like how the decision to shut off power was made and give specifics about exactly what electric circuits were turned off, how many customers were affected and how the blackout was communicated to customers and government agencies.

The CPUC posted PG&E's 230-page report on the Oct. 9-12 outage earlier this week.

PG&E called the scale of the event — which was significantly exceeded by last Saturday's blackouts — "unsustainable in the long term." But in the next breath, the company defended the massive shutoff as "the right decision given the large-scale weather event and the damage to PG&E’s electric system that unfolded across our service area."

The company also acknowledged its performance had been less than perfect when it came to communications: "PG&E acknowledges falling short in several areas of execution, which is why PG&E is committed to closing identified gaps quickly. First and foremost, PG&E has reinforced its website and redistributed staffing in its call centers to handle a much higher volume for future events."

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