Pacific Gas and Electric CEO Bill Johnson admitted to California lawmakers Monday the utility failed its first major test of a power shut off in early October, even as it announced it could cut power to 660,000 people this week.
"I think we got a little complacent that we had figured it out and all of a sudden we scaled up to 20 times that size in the next event," Johnson said during a state Senate oversight hearing.
California's utilities were before senators at the state Capitol Monday to explain how they go about cutting the power to tens of thousands of people and to explain where they are with fire prevention and equipment upgrades.
Johnson says the utility focused more on the outage itself and did not take into account the impact it would have on people's lives.
A lot of questions and complaints were directed PG&E’s way: either that the utility is turning off the power needlessly to prevent fire or that it should have known conditions were ripe for fires like the Camp Fire last year. Sen. Mike McGuire from Sonoma County asked PG&E VP Sumeet Singh about last month's Kincaid Fire.
“You tell everyone and their brother that you're going to turn off the lights for fire safety and then you keep the damn transmission lines in the most critical fire territory open and live," McGuire said. "Give me an understanding as to how that works and why that decision would be made.”
“We actually did shut down several transmission lines,” Singh began but was cut off.
“You obviously didn’t shut down the one that had the spark," McGuire interrupted.
Johnson said PG&E is looking to San Diego Gas and Electric for best practices when it comes to targeted outages and fire prevention. SDG&E COO Caroline Winn says it has worked to cover more of its bare wire lines, provide generators to areas without power and bury more of its lines underground.
"We are also working to extend a falling conductor protection technology that will prevent broken wires from becoming an ignition source," Winn said.
A broken clamp allowed a power line to fall at the start of the Camp Fire a year ago.
Southern California Edison also took questions from lawmakers. Representatives said the utility had found damage to its lines that could have caused fires had the power been on during shutoffs in October. Phil Herrington, senior VP of transmissions and distribution said the utility is working to “cover” or insulate its lines, which is one-eighth the cost of burying or “undergrounding” lines.
The utility also pledged to compensate customers for food and medicine spoilage if their power was shut off with less than 12 hours notice.
High winds are forecast in northern California Wednesday to Thursday. PG&E notified 264,000 customers in 22 counties that they may be without power during that time.
Johnson told lawmakers that PG&E has spent $30 billion over the last 10 years improving its electrical network. He also said the company recently inspected its vast network of power lines and other equipment for repairs and replacement. The company has plans to install “microgrids,” or backup power sources, for isolated areas to help keep power running during a shutoff.
“We do not expect an annual repeat of what we went through this October,” Johnson said. “That just cannot happen again.”
But lawmakers were skeptical. Democratic Sen. Bill Monning noted the company is facing potential damages of up to $30 billion for a series of wildfires in 2017 and 2018, including the most devastating wildfire in state history that destroyed roughly 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people.
Monning said PG&E has not buried its power lines in fire-prone areas to “save money for shareholders.” He did note that if the company decided to bury one-quarter of its power lines in wildfire-prone areas, it would cost roughly $15 billion.
“I think you will see us undergrounding considerably more of our system,” Johnson said. “Not so much because of the liability, but because it’s the right thing to do given the circumstances.”
Preemptive power shutoffs are not new to California, but the scope of those by PG&E this year have been unprecedented. The company has more than 5 million customers in Northern California.
Lawmakers have set a June 30 deadline for PG&E to emerge from bankruptcy or else forfeit participation in a fund designed to help cover damages from future wildfires. But negotiations have bogged down as shareholders and creditors battle in bankruptcy court over the future of the company.
A federal bankruptcy judge has appointed a mediator to try to resolve the case. But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened to intervene if the company can’t reach an agreement by June 30, including a potential state takeover.
Adam Beam of the Associated Press contributed to this story