One Step Forward, Two Steps Back with PG&E

After a controversial, statewide power outage, the utility company is keeping local officials at arm’s length. It seems PG&E’s “primary goal was protecting itself from liability,” not the millions without power.
by J.D. Morris, San Francisco Chronicle | October 19, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. failed to provide essential information to counties and cities during last week’s mass power outages, botching an unprecedented fire-prevention measure that could have killed many people if it lasted longer, five local governments said this week.

In a blistering critique filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, local officials accused PG&E of keeping them at arm’s length, fumbling efforts to communicate behind the scenes and intentionally overstating the areas likely to lose power, among other missteps.

PG&E was not ready for obvious consequences of cutting power to so many people even though the utility had repeatedly told the public it was willing to put any of its electric customers in the dark in order to stop another fire, said the filing from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa.

The local governments told the utilities commission Tuesday that they tried working with PG&E to implement “real changes” to its power shut-offs. But the experience was “like battling the Hydra,” the governments said, referring to the serpent monster from Greek mythology that grows new heads whenever one is severed.

Each time local officials encountered helpful PG&E employees, someone else who worked for the utility would erect a new obstacle, the filing said. The governments concluded that PG&E’s “primary goal was protecting itself from liability, and that considerations of the resulting human and economic damage were, if examined at all, secondary.”

“It is also clear that PG&E has no idea what it is doing when it comes to de-energization and is terrified,” the local governments’ filing said. “The lack of confidence PG&E has in its infrastructure is certainly apparent ... PG&E as a whole continues to fail us.”

PG&E forcefully denies any ulterior motive behind its decision to cut electricity for 738,000 customer accounts in parts of 34 counties last week. The company says its decision was motivated by a dangerous forecast of extreme winds that made its power lines likely to start devastating fires — just like they did in 2017 and 2018.

While inspecting its equipment before restoring electricity, PG&E found more than 100 instances of damage or hazards — including trees and branches that fell on power lines, which could have started wildfires. PG&E says wind gusts exceeded 40 miles per hour in 22 counties and 50 miles per hour in 15 counties.

PG&E points to the recorded wind speeds and equipment damage as evidence that the company made the right call. Utility leaders also note that no catastrophic fires started during the outage — unlike in Southern California, where investigators are looking into whether the dangerous Saddle Ridge Fire could have been started by another electric company’s equipment last week.

In an opinion piece published on The Chronicle’s website Thursday, Bill Johnson, CEO of the utility’s parent PG&E Corp., acknowledged “the anger about how disruptive it is to live without power.” But as PG&E “evaluated the science about the conditions and the risk — in consultation with numerous state agencies,” Johnson wrote, the company “believed this was the right thing to do for public safety.”

“And we still do,” he said.

Johnson wrote that PG&E was aiming to “improve coordination with state and local government agency partners.”

PG&E’s actions last week also drew scorn from Gov. Gavin Newsom and a pointed letter from Marybel Batjer, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission. Batjer directed PG&E to implement a series of changes to its power shut-off program and summoned company executives to appear at an emergency meeting of the commission on Friday.

In his own letter to Batjer on Thursday, Johnson said PG&E leaders “agree with many of the items” she listed and that the company is already acting to make future shut-offs “more seamless.”

“Some of these improvements can occur in the near term, while others will need to unfold over the months and years to come,” Johnson said. The company already had “two listening sessions” with county representatives and is conducting a “detailed after-action review,” he wrote in the letter.

Local officials say PG&E’s recent outages could have been far worse.

If last week’s shut-offs lasted another 24 hours — as PG&E had warned they might — the company “could have seen as many customer deaths as in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires,” the local governments said in their regulatory filing. Those fires, many of which were caused by PG&E equipment, killed dozens of people.

“Toward the end of the outage, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other facilities that provide care to vulnerable individuals were nearing the limits of their backup power,” the filing said, noting that officials “expect that many stories of near-misses and closely averted disasters will emerge in the coming weeks.”

In files PG&E provided to local governments showing which areas were targeted to lose power, the outage area seemed to be overstated by 20%, local governments determined. But PG&E liaisons assigned to local governments’ emergency centers “had their own outage maps on their personal electronic devices ... that appeared to be accurate,” the filing said.

Batjer’s letter expressed a similar concern, saying PG&E “continues to fail at making available maps with clear boundaries ... in a timely manner.” She directed PG&E to work with state emergency officials to improve its sharing of outage boundary maps. Batjer also told the company to improve its coordination with local governments in a variety of ways.

PG&E told the commission Thursday that it will hold in-person meetings with communities impacted by the recent outages to gather feedback. The company is already “evaluating different methods for producing maps that provide a higher level of precision of the potential outage impacts,” according to PG&E’s response to Batjer’s letter.

The company allowed local representatives to sit in at PG&E’s Emergency Operations Center, but in practice it was a “dismal failure,” the counties and city said. Only Sonoma County sent representatives, who were given short tours of the Emergency Operations Center. They were allowed to sit in on PG&E phone calls with local governments but otherwise kept in a different room three security gates removed from the emergency center, the filing said.

According to the local governments’ memo, PG&E said capacity constraints in the center and “technical/legal/regulatory limitations restricted its ability to allow Sonoma’s full access to information and data-sharing.” The governments questioned the validity of that assertion.

Local officials also said state government representatives were given full access to the PG&E center — even though the primary response to the company’s power outages happened at the local level.

“This is an absurd state of affairs,” the filing said.

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