California residents face up to 10 years of widespread, precautionary forced power shut-offs until Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the bankrupt utility giant, will be able to prevent its power transmission lines from sparking fires, the company’s top official said.
The sobering projection came from company Chief Executive William D. Johnson at an emergency meeting Friday of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.
While the need for widespread shutdowns should lessen every year, Johnson told commissioners, “I think this is probably a 10-year timeline to get to a point where it’s really ratcheted down significantly.”
Between June and early October, PG&E carried out four power shut-offs. The largest — and most criticized — was from Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, affecting 738,000 customers in 35 counties radiating out from the Sacramento area.
Food spoiled, traffic signals died, cellphones faded out. Schools and businesses came to a standstill and frustrations grew into concerns over safety as hospitals switched to emergency generators.
“What we saw play out by PG&E last week cannot be repeated,” commission President Marybel Batjer said Friday, according to prepared remarks. “The loss of power endangers lives ... and imposes additional burdens on our most vulnerable populations.”
Batjer noted also that “PG&E was not fully prepared to manage such a large-scale power shut-off.”
During the planned outage, the utility’s website crashed and customers tried futilely to reach the utility by any means for information.
The purpose of Friday’s meeting, said Batjer, was to ensure that the state’s utilities “are better prepared — and that their customers are better served — when our state faces the next wildfire threat and, if warranted, another power shut-off incident.”
At the meeting and in a Friday letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Johnson acknowledged the inadequacies of PG&E’s actions, while defending the purpose behind them. He also emphasized that the decision to turn power off was made in consultation with the National Weather Service and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
During the shutdown, maximum wind gusts exceeded 45 miles per hour in 16 of the affected counties, he wrote to Newsom. No wildfires occurred but inspections found more than 100 instances of damage, including trees and branches in standing and downed power lines.
“Any one of these instances could have been a potential source of ignition,” Johnson wrote, adding that “the vast majority of customers were restored within 48 hours of the all-clear signal.”
In his presentation to the commission, Johnson laid out a long list of measures the utility has undertaken to improve its handling of future shutoffs, while limiting their duration. He said the utility would gradually “sectionalize” equipment, so it could power down smaller sections of the grid at a time and there would also need to be more local power generation. Covered transmission wire would help, as well as better “vegetation management” and evolving technology, he said.
Such efforts would take years to complete, he predicted.
“We know we have much to improve upon, including customer notifications, accuracy ... of maps, website performance and narrowing the scope of such shutoffs as much as possible,” he wrote to the governor.
Newsom has been sharply critical of the utility and called on its officials to provide restitution to customers.
Johnson responded that compensation is under consideration by the utility, which already faces billions of dollars in liability from past fatal fires linked to its equipment, including last year’s Camp fire, which killed more than 80 people and destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California.
Johnson also sent a letter to Batjer, acknowledging that the size and geographic sweep of the recent outage was “untenable” and “cannot become the status quo in California.”
“Making the right decision on safety isn’t the same thing as executing that decision well,” he told the commission.
Meanwhile, a red flag warning, indicating a high risk of fire, is in effect until late Sunday night for the Pacific coastline south of Santa Barbara and nearby mountains, with dry, gusty winds in the forecast, according to the National Weather Service.
Another utility, Southern California Edison, was weighing potential power shut-offs that could affect some customers in Inyo, Kern and Los Angeles counties. About 11,500 customers in the Santa Clarita area could be impacted.
As of Friday night, however, Socal Edison was still keeping the lights on.
John Myers contributed to this report.