California regulator slams PG&E over electricity shut-off

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California’s top regulator excoriated top executives of the state’s largest utility even as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) repeatedly said they know they failed to meet public expectations when the company cut the power to more than two million people last week.

Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, called the emergency meeting on Friday and ordered the executives to attend and explain themselves. She said she was “absolutely astounded” by what she thought were simple preparedness steps the utility could have taken.

“You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff,” Batjer said.

PG&E officials, even as they repeatedly apologised for their shortcomings in execution, defended their decision to cut power to more than 700,000 customer accounts in advance of dangerous winds that could have sparked wildfires.

“We actually didn’t have any catastrophic fires in northern and central California; that was the sole intent,” said Bill Johnson, CEO of PG&E Corp.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) CEO Bill Johnson, left, waits for a meeting to begin at California Public Utilities Commission headquarters in San Francisco. PHOTO: AP

Governor Gavin Newsom has blasted the San Francisco-based utility for what he called decades of mismanagement. Critics of the for-profit utility renewed calls to break up the company. For much of the meeting, which lasted more than four hours, PG&E executives insisted they only had the public’s safety in mind when they cut off power. They promised to do better.

The company’s website had 1.7 million user requests an hour when it normally logs 7,000, officials said.

Andy Vesey, a PG&E executive, added that they did not think broadly enough and underestimated the needs of their customers and local governments. “We have to develop a mindset, or culture, of anticipation,” he said.

PG&E announced around 2pm on October 8 that it would be shutting off power at midnight to parts of northern and central California, saying that high wind forecasts could damage equipment and spark wildfires.

Panicked residents stood in long lines at supermarkets, hardware stores and gas stations, rushing to buy ice, coolers, flashlights and batteries to make sure their cars had gas.

The outages paralyzed parts of a state that has the fifth-largest economy in the world. Schools and universities cancelled classes, and some businesses closed. Customers complained of overloaded call centres and a website that kept crashing.

“It’s not enough to do better in the future, when the harms were predicted and known,” said Melissa Kasnitz, legal director of the Center for Accessible Technology. “Real people experienced real fear.”