Lawmakers Grill Utility Executives on Blackouts as More Shutoffs Loom

4 min
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson - seated next to the 'reserved' sign - speaks with PG&E Vice President Sumeet Singh ahead of a November 18 California Senate hearing into power shutoffs by investor-owned utilities. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

California lawmakers dragged executives of the state's three investor-owned utilities into a Capitol hearing room Monday to probe the planned power shutoffs that have plagued large swaths of the state in recent months, even as PG&E warned that a new round of blackouts could occur later this week.

PG&E, the state's largest and only bankrupt utility, was joined by San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison at the hearing in front of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, which was called by Senate President pro tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Many lawmakers focused their questions on the impacts of the blackouts on medically fragile and frail customers — but they didn't limit their criticisms to that issue. Instead, lawmakers framed the shutoffs as indicative of a larger problem with investor-owned utilities.

"Californians deserve to know what to expect and when, and what happens if those expectations are not met," Atkins said at the beginning of the hearing. "We cannot nip around edges, now is the time for the state to have all options on the table. They have failed us too many times."

Executives from all three companies faced questions as they detailed the work they've done to try and reduce the risk of wildfires caused by their equipment — but the smallest provider, SDG&E, which has made the most significant strides toward guarding its system against fires, was the clear favorite of lawmakers.

By contrast, it was clear that PG&E officials were in the hot seat.

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While all three utilities have sparked wildfires with their equipment, PG&E has caused the most deadly and destructive fires in state history in recent years, including the Camp Fire, which decimated the Butte County town of Paradise just over a year ago. The company opted in January to file for bankruptcy protection as it grappled with tens of billions of dollars in liability costs related to those blazes. PG&E's blackouts have also been the most sweeping, affecting as many as 2.5 million customers in one case last month.

Testifying before California lawmakers, CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged that the planned power shutoffs are "not a sustainable solution to the wildfire threats we face.”

Johnson also admitted that the company's response and communication during the blackouts was lacking, saying that PG&E officials were more focused on the question of turning off the power than on how the shutoffs would impact customers.

"We do not expect an annual repeat of what happened in October," Johnson said, noting that the utility is investing in technologies — many of them pioneered by SDG&E — to reduce the number of customers that need to be impacted by a power shutoff aimed at avoiding a wildfire.

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Johnson predicted that by next fall, one-third fewer customers could lose power during a weather event similar to the largest one in October. He said earlier statements that PG&E customers could be grappling with power shutoffs for the next decade were not meant to imply that those blackouts would be as widely felt as the ones this year.

"It's not acceptable to have another year like this, let alone 10," Johnson said, adding that he meant it could take a decade to fully improve the system to the point where shutoffs are as "surgical" as the ones undertaken by SDG&E this year.

"Maybe five years to get to a good place," he said. "The next three years are crucial in my opinion."

Some of the most pointed questions came from lawmakers who represent districts served by PG&E.

"I looked at what happened on October 9 as a big 'screw you' to your customers, to the Legislature, to the governor," said Napa Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat, referring to the first round of power shutoffs that some viewed as unnecessary. "I really believe that has created amongst the Legislature, amongst your customers, a real trust issue."

Johnson said the company was simply following protocol.

Perhaps illustrating the tricky situation Johnson and other PG&E executives find themselves in, some lawmakers also questioned why, amid all those shutoffs, the company may have still sparked a fire.

North Bay Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes the area ravaged by the Kincade Fire in October, grilled Johnson over the decision not to cut power to a transmission line that could be to blame for sparking the blaze, which destroyed 174 homes in Sonoma County.

"You tell everyone and their brother that you’re going to turn off their lights for fire safety, and then you keep the damn transmission line on," McGuire said.

PG&E filed a report with regulators last month that said a broken jumper cable on a transmission tower may have been to blame for the blaze, and confirmed that it did not cut power to its highest-voltage transmission lines.

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Johnson has previously said that the tower where the failure occurred had been inspected four times over the past two years and that several maintenance issues had been addressed. He has also stressed that winds forecast for the night the fire began did not meet PG&E's criteria for shutting down transmission lines.

The official cause of the fire is still under investigation. 

McGuire also criticized the utility over the support it has offered to residents during previous shutoffs, noting that its community resource centers for device charging, air conditioning and shelter were only open until 8 p.m.

"The need doesn’t stop after 8 p.m.,” he said, adding that if the company moves forward with shutoffs later this week, the weather may be significantly colder — posing a threat to people without access to heat.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, was perhaps the most pointed in his criticism.

"In my mind this company has forfeited its right to operate as an investor-owned utility — we need fundamental structural change at PG&E because this company isn't working and hasn't been for some time," he said.

He asked representatives from all three companies why they continue to fight against a state plan to expand privately-owned clean energy storage.

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