SAN FRANCISCO — California regulators will vote Wednesday on whether to open an investigation into pre-emptive power outages that blacked out large parts of the state for much of October as strong winds sparked fears of wildfires.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initiated multiple rounds of shut-offs and plunged nearly 2.5 million people into darkness at one point throughout northern and central California. Some of the outages lasted for several days.
PG&E officials insisted on the shut-offs for public safety, but infuriated residents and a parade of public officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said cutting off power should be used only as a last resort and that the company regularly botched communications.
Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. also shut off power but to far fewer people.
The outages raised concerns about whether the utilities “properly balanced the need to provide reliable service with public safety and were properly planned and executed,” according to the order authorizing the investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission.
CPUC President Marybel Batjer ordered the investigation last month and the five-member commission appears ready to give its approval given the public frustration.
Commissioners grilled PG&E officials at an emergency meeting called by Batjer last month, demanding answers for why the utility was so unprepared for an Oct. 9 shutdown in which counties and customers struggled with a crashing website and overworked call lines to get information.
Batjer said she was “absolutely astounded” by the company’s lack of preparation.
PG&E Initiated Five Outages
When many cell towers were down and internet services out, the utility was telling people to get information from a website, through family or call on a landline.
The outages were astonishing for a state that is one of the economic powerhouses in the world. People made frantic dashes for cash and gas as businesses watched their goods spoil. Some elderly and disabled people were trapped in their apartments with elevators out of service.
PG&E initiated five rounds, with the smallest affecting about 30,000 people and the largest affecting nearly 2.5 million. Residents in San Francisco suburbs and in Northern California wine country were without power for days.
Bill Johnson, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., said the outages were the right call and kept people safe, although a transmission line in Sonoma County that was not powered off malfunctioned minutes before a wildfire erupted Oct. 23, forcing about 180,000 people to evacuate.
The company is in bankruptcy and faces $30 billion in liabilities after its equipment was found to have started several deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the year-old Camp Fire that killed 85 in Butte County.
In September, PG&E reached an $11 billion settlement with most of the insurers covering victims of deadly wildfires, but Newsom is stepping up pressure on PG&E to fork over billions more.
If PG&E doesn’t make changes, Newsom is threatening to try to turn the utility into a customer-owned cooperative run by the state and local governments. The company so far has defended its proposal as a fair deal for all parties involved in its bankruptcy.
Southern California Edison also initiated five preventive outages but to far fewer customers. The company has announced that its equipment likely caused last year’s Woolsey Fire, which killed three people and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.