With the threat of another power outage looming, state lawmakers hammered Pacific Gas & Electric at the state Capitol on Monday for botching shut-offs that left millions of Californians in the dark this fall and blamed the company for failing to upgrade its system over time.
During an all-day hearing that included testimony from California’s investor-owned utilities, state officials and representatives of communities affected by outages, state senators vented their frustrations as they tried to identify legislative solutions to problems caused by this year’s wildfire-prevention blackouts.
“I look at what happened on Oct. 9 as a big screw you: to your customers, to the Legislature, to the governor,” state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) said, adding that he felt the utility unnecessarily cut power to parts of his district last month. “It requires, again, that questioning: Who in the hell designed your system?”
Electrical utilities expanded the use of intentional outages during dangerous weather conditions over the last year to prevent their power lines from sparking the kinds of deadly fires that have become a way of life in California. The Legislature originally supported shutoffs as a method of last resort to save lives, and voted in 2018 to require the state’s three investor-owned utilities to annually submit outage protocols to the state.
But attitudes changed soon after widespread shutoffs began this fall — in some instances, without proper communication to government officials and customers that lost power. Among the many problems reported, residents complained of expired food, medically fragile customers struggled to find access to electricity to power life-sustaining medical equipment and businesses reported devastating economic losses.
A four-day outage in early October had an estimated impact of $50 million to $70 million in Sonoma County alone, said Mark Bodenhamer, the chief executive of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“People are exhausted. They are fed up and deserve better,” Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said. “I’ve never seen food bank lines like what I saw two weeks ago. It’s like what you see on television in Third World countries, and it’s unacceptable.”
Lawmakers also heard testimony from representatives of San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. While some implored Edison to do more to help elderly and medically fragile customers pay for generators and prepare for outages, the tone of the questions was relatively cordial and much of the focus remained on PG&E.
Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said it was time to rethink the future of the state’s largest electrical utility.
“This company, in my mind, has forfeited its right to operate as an investor-owned utility,” Wiener said. “We need fundamental structural change at PG&E because the status quo just isn’t working and hasn’t worked for a long time.”
William Johnson, the chief executive of PG&E, acknowledged that the company fumbled the shutoffs last month but said the outages were necessary to protect public safety. He said that wildfire threat in PG&E’s service territory has increased at a “rate that few could imagine,” from less than 15% of its area at elevated risk of wildfire in 2012 to more than 50% today.
“Let’s just think about that for a minute. The risk exposure in this energy network that serves 16 million people has more than tripled, a 300% increase, over a period that most companies in this industry would consider the blink of an eye,” Johnson said. “And so we have to cope with this heightened risk the best that we can and turning off power for safety is an effective tool.”
Johnson, who joined the company this year, pushed back on the perception that the electrical system is in shambles due to neglect.
PG&E has invested more than $30 billion in its electrical transmission and distribution assets over the last decade, Johnson said. The company more recently inspected all of its equipment in high-fire areas and its vegetation management — including trimming more than 7 million trees in two years and removing 500,000 dead trees — exceeded state requirements, he said.
“But the fact is no amount of vegetation clearing can prevent catastrophic wildfires or wind-blown debris from hitting and impacting our wires,” Johnson said.
Lawmakers raised concerns about vulnerable residents, particularly the elderly and disabled whose lives may depend on access to refrigerated medications or electrically powered medical equipment, and the need for more back-up power options.
Officials also criticized the California Public Utilities Commission, the entity charged with regulating the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities, for what they said was weak oversight in the past.
“I believed that de-energizing power lines in advance of a severe windstorm would be a rare, strategically targeted and a last option against a utility ignition of a wildfire,” said Dodd, who wrote the state’s marquee wildfire bill, SB 901, last year. “Unfortunately and unacceptably, in this case the PG&E shutoffs have been applied broadly and with little to no strategic planning.”
PG&E pledged to speed up the timeline to fully update and harden its infrastructure, which the company previously said would take up to 10 years.
“I want to assure you of this: We do not expect an annual repeat of what we went through this October,” Johnson said. “We’re working to narrow the scope and duration of future safety shutoffs and minimize the customer impact as much as possible.”
As lawmakers questioned the utilities, PG&E began notifying 300,000 customers in 25 Northern California counties on Monday that it could shut off the power again as early as Wednesday morning in anticipation of high winds and dry vegetation.
The company said Sunday that its meteorologists anticipate sustained winds of 25 miles per hour with peak gusts of more than 55 miles per hour in some of the potentially affected areas, which include Alameda, Amador, Butte, Contra Costa, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Yolo and Yuba counties. The company said the high winds are expected to last through Thursday morning, at which time its employees could begin inspecting power lines for any damage before turning the electricity back on.
The problem of so-called public safety power shutoffs represents a test for the political and policy acumen of legislators and the governor, who will be responsible for holding the utilities accountable and keeping the lights on across the state.
In the middle of wildfire season, a majority of Californians said they were concerned about the threat of fires and shutoffs, according to a poll conducted earlier this month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. The poll found that 46% of likely voters disapprove of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s handling of wildfires and outages, compared with 42% who approve.
The Legislature reconvenes for the second year of its regular session in January, when it will be forced to address ongoing issues related to wildfire prevention and mitigation.
But after Monday’s marathon hearing, at least one lawmaker struggled to find any immediate remedies to lessen the effects of the outages on his constituents.
“At the end of this eight-hour hearing, I simply don’t know what kind of solace or solution I can point to in the near term for the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, businesses and local government we work for to survive the next blackout,” Sen. Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) said.