California regulator criticizes execution of PG&E power outage

Concerned that downed lines could spark wildfires, electric company PG&E issued planned blackouts. But poor communication left customers in the dark.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
PG&E executives have been called to an emergency hearing after a pre-emptive power outage affected an estimated 2.1 million Californians, says Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer, seen here at a news conference with Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 23, 2019.

California's top utility regulator blasted Pacific Gas and Electric on Monday for what she called "failures in execution" during the largest planned power outage in state history to avoid wildfires that she said, "created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated."

The agency ordered a series of corrective actions, including a goal of restoring power within 12 hours, not the utility's current 48-hour goal.

"The scope, scale, complexity, and overall impact to people's lives, businesses, and the economy of this action cannot be understated," California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer wrote in a letter to PG&E CEO Bill Johnson.

PG&E last week took the unprecedented step of cutting power to more than 700,000 customers, affecting an estimated 2.1 million Californians. The company said it did it because of dangerous wind forecasts but acknowledged that its execution was poor.

Its website frequently crashed, and many people said they did not receive enough warning that the power was going out.

"We were not adequately prepared," Mr. Johnson said at a press conference last week.

PG&E said in a statement Monday that employees found more than 100 spots where parts of its systems were damaged during the strong winds, including downed power lines and places where trees had hit the lines. Repairs were either completed or underway at those sites.

"It is possible that any one of these instances could have been a potential source of ignition" for a wildfire if the outage hadn't taken effect, the statement said.

However, the utility didn't specifically comment on the regulatory sanctions.

In addition to restoring power faster, the PUC said the utility must work harder to avoid such large-scale outages, develop better ways to communicate with the public and local officials, get a better system for distributing outage maps, and work with emergency personnel to ensure PG&E staff are sufficiently trained.

She ordered the utility to perform an audit of its performance during the outages that began Wednesday, saying the utility clearly did not adopt many of the recommendations state officials have made since utilities was granted the authority to begin pre-emptive power shutoffs last year. The review is due by Thursday, and she ordered several PG&E executives to appear at an emergency PUC hearing Friday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has also criticized PG&E for its performance during the outage, blaming what he called decades of mismanagement, underinvestment, and lousy communication with the public. On Monday, the Democratic governor urged the utility to compensate affected customers with a bill credit or rebate worth $100 for residential customers or $250 for small businesses.

Mr. Newsom said the shutoffs affected too many customers for too long, and it is clear PG&E implemented them "with astounding neglect and lack of preparation."

Mr. Johnson, the PG&E CEO, responded in writing to Mr. Newsom's letter Monday, noting that no fires occurred during the power shut-off. He said he welcomes the PUC review.

"We know there are areas where we fell short of our commitment to serving our customers during this unprecedented event, both in our operations and in our customer communications, and we look forward to learning from these agencies how we can improve," he wrote.

Ms. Batjer's letter also said that PG&E's service territory, design of its transmission lines and distribution network, and "lack of granularity of its forecasting ability" mean it can't do pre-emptive power shut-offs as strategically as some other utilities, but she said it must work harder to reduce the number of customers affected by future outages.

In a separate filing with the PUC on Monday, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties and the city of Santa Rosa complained about PG&E's communications with local governments and emergency management agencies ahead of planned outages. For instance, attorneys wrote, the weather forecasting website that it uses to communicate with local agencies and emergency services is inadequate and not aligned with commonly used public emergency standards.

"It appears never to have occurred to the utility to confirm with its local public safety partners that the tool would meet their needs, nor did PG&E show the website to the local governments who had long been asking for situational awareness information before launching the website publicly," attorneys wrote.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to California regulator criticizes execution of PG&E power outage
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today