Flickering lights

California Public Utilities Commission called an emergency meeting to confront PG&E on its ‘unacceptable’ blackout. The following week, it announced another safety power shutoff.

This story has been expanded from its print version.

Days after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. intentionally threw 2 million Californians into darkness, regulators publicly denounced the utility giant at an Oct. 18 emergency meeting. Just three days after that, PG&E announced it may again shut off power this week.

And on Wednesday, it confirmed a cutoff to 179,000 customers in 17 counties in the foothills and Bay Area, starting Wednesday and Thursday.

What may come to be known as the great California blackout of 2019 marked the third time PG&E triggered its Public Safety Power Shutoff program in hopes of preemptively stopping large-scale wildfires, which could be ignited by winds damaging its equipment. While two previous efforts sparked anger and concern, the scale of its most recent shut-off caused a level of disruption that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Public Utilities Commission found unacceptable.

With a host of PG&E’s managers sitting before her, Newsom’s newly-appointed PUC president, Marybel Batjer, said the company had botched the shut-off on a level that compromised the health and well-being of countless people across the state. Batjer also noted the irony of Californians suffering from “the inadequate execution of measures that are supposed to keep them safe.”

Batjer added, “What we saw play out last week with PG&E cannot be repeated.”

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson acknowledged that his team failed at a number of tasks during the blackout, particularly in its communication to the public. “Another area of focus for us is narrowing the scope of safety shut-offs,” Johnson told commissioners. “Moving us toward a future where the shut-offs are uncommon or even unnecessary.”

Johnson said part of that calculus was adding new sectioning equipment for sub-transmitters and helping to invest in micro-grids. When pressed by commissioners about now long the improvements will take, Johnson said he thought probably 10 years. The CEO’s presentation drew withering remarks from Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves.

“PG&E is treating its customers as if there’s no way it could lose them,” Aceves told Johnson. “Is your lack of preparedness and consideration for your customers a reflection that fundamentally you believe that you are entitled to them?”

Johnson answered he didn’t believe that. But Batjer had a similar thought for him to chew on.

“With great entitlement comes great responsibility” she told the CEO.