PG&E will try to reduce blackout impact. It also says entire grid could go dark

PG&E Corp. said Friday it could potentially black out its entire electric grid to prevent wildfires — affecting 5.4 million households and businesses — and suggested it would consider offloading the decision on future power shutoffs to state officials.

In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, and in remarks to the Public Utilities Commission, PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson defended PG&E’s decision to impose a “public safety power shutoff” last week on an unprecedented 738,000 customers. Some people went without power up to three days. He did apologize for what PUC President Marybel Batjer called a “total breakdown in communications” and said PG&E is working to narrow the scope of future blackouts.

PG&E, in a 16-page summary to the PUC of last week’s blackout, said it’s possible it could shut down power to all customers if weather conditions dictate, although it said “the likelihood of an event of this scale occurring is extremely low.” Johnson told the PUC at an emergency meeting of the commission Friday that half of its grid is in a high-fire threat zone, up from just 15 percent seven years ago — a condition he attributed mainly to climate change.

Johnson, in a letter to Newsom, deflected the governor’s demand for PG&E to reimburse customers.

“This is most appropriately an issue for discussion after the CPUC’s review of the incident,” he wrote.

He added that the state might want take ownership of whether future blackouts should be imposed.

“I have read and heard comments about PG&E’s motives in instituting the (blackout) and whether we can be trusted to do the right thing,” the CEO wrote. “In this vein, I think a policy conversation is in order about whether some other entity – CPUC, Cal Fire, etc. – should be empowered as the authority to make such decisions. I do not seek to shirk any responsibility with this suggestion but am interested in bolstering the public confidence required for such decisions to be effective.”

He noted that PG&E consulted extensively with state officials before pulling the plug.

The beleaguered utility has come under intense scrutiny for communication failures and the huge estimated financial losses projected by the shutoff, which started before sunrise Oct. 9 and ended Oct. 12.

PG&E has called the shutoff a “last resort” to combat severe wildfire risk amid hyper-gusty conditions, which brought winds above 50 mph to some parts of the west Sacramento Valley.

Acknowledging that its website crashed and its call center was overwhelmed, Johnson apologized for “these critical errors” and vowed PG&E would do better the next time. Although he said he thinks the scope of the blackouts can be narrowed, Johnson added that “it’s probably a 10-year timeline” before major power shutoffs become things of the past.

That prediction prompted a quick rebuke from state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose community was scarred by the 2017 wine country fires. “Ten years is an unacceptable amount of time to wait for PG&E to strengthen its electric grid so that it does not spark yet another catastrophic wildfire,” he said in a prepared statement. “That proposition is even more offensive considering PG&E has neglected doing its job for years as it was paying out bonuses and shareholder dividends. Simply shutting down all the power is not the answer either.”

Despite the company’s repeated claims during the hearing that it is working diligently to improve its performance and heighten the safety of the PG&E electricity system, PUC commissioners were clearly skeptical about the utility’s track record and efforts.

“You will be judged by outcomes and not by plans,” Batjer told Johnson.

The company defended the decision earlier this week, reporting that crews found over 100 instances of damaged equipment and citing this finding as evidence that the shutoffs were a necessary effort to prevent wildfires. No major wildfires ignited during the four-day power shutoff event, which spanned 35 counties.

“We actually didn’t have any catastrophic fires in Northern and Central California,” Johnson told the commission, although he acknowledged “we can’t prove our decision avoided fires.”

The shutoff “served its essential purpose,” he added. He added that PG&E is working to upgrade its system so future shutoffs, if necessary, can be done “with more precision.”

Newsom, speaking to reporters Friday after a California State University event in Sacramento, scolded PG&E’s “lack of preparedness as it relates to even having a website that could be operational.”

“I want to remind you, the state of California came in and fixed that website in partnership with Esri and Amazon and Microsoft,” Newsom said. “They had a call center that had backups, calls some people suggesting it was over an hour, they weren’t even prepared for that. The communication to local government was inadequate.”

Newsom weighs in, again

At the CSU event, Newsom said he wasn’t familiar with a bill to disincentivize PG&E – introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco – from triggering massive blackouts. But he said he’s focused on what the California Public Utilities Commission can do to crack down on the utility.

“I appreciate legislative oversight, I think that’s encouraging, I think that’s appropriate and should continue, but the PUC has the hammer, they have the direct authority and Marybel Batjer, the new CPUC chair, has been working hand and glove with out administration and other experts ... She’ll be very aggressive in terms of trying to understand the protocols that led to their decision making.

“I want to see that rebate go forward,” Newsom added, referring to a solution he posed earlier this week that involved paying out credits of $100 to all residential customers and $250 to all small commercial businesses impacted by PG&E’s shutoffs. “We want people to continue to collect their receipts and make sure they quantify that business interruption loss or their personal losses.”

Newsom said PG&E must be held accountable for the shutoff events, which California “cannot move forward with.”

“The size and scope of this utility leads to the obvious question, is it too big and can it be broken up and managed in a different way?” Newsom asked. “Can we still respect labor rights, protect our labor organizations, but at the same time have a framework where we have a grid that can be more appropriately managed that is required of the world and the moment we’re living?”

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.