Editor's note: We’ve updated the headline of the story to clarify that PG&E withheld information about medically at-risk customers and not medical information about the customers.
PG&E refused to give numerous counties access to a database of medically vulnerable customers ahead of a power shutoff that impacted millions of Californians.
The utility insisted local governments needed a non-disclosure agreement in place in order to receive the information before the October 9 shutoff, despite the California Public Utilities Commission’s directions to release it.
“That created quite a lot of confusion in that moment, because it was already expected by these counties that they would receive this information,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director of safety and enforcement policy at the CPUC. “And now they had to deal with this legal matter on top of the [public safety power shutoff] event.”
Counties depend on the information — known as “medical baseline customer” data — to help identify at-risk populations during a shutoff. Some counties use it to supplement locally maintained databases of vulnerable residents. For others, the information may be a primary way of identifying these populations.
But ahead of the October 9 shutoff, which impacted nearly 2 million Californians in over 30 counties, PG&E refused to release the information to many counties.
When the utility eventually agreed — a few hours ahead of the shutoff and only after the CPUC issued a formal order — the online portal repeatedly crashed.
PG&E spokesperson Jeff Smith says the utility initially thought that the CPUC required the non-disclosure agreements to provide counties with the database.
“Once we did receive that clarification from the CPUC … we did begin to release it,” Smith said.
The CPUC is currently investigating PG&E’s handling of recent planned shutoffs. Some local governments claim the utility has continued to withhold information about medically vulnerable customers during subsequent outages.
California’s three largest utilities — PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California — offer discounts to people who depend on medical equipment that uses electricity. While not designed as an emergency response tool, that customer database has been adapted to help identify vulnerable customers during power shutoffs and disasters.
There are limitations to the program. For example, customers have to sign up, so the utilities’ databases won’t include those who don’t opt in. It also includes customers with a variety of conditions, from ones that depend on oxygen tanks to those with back issues that use a hot tub to ease the pain. Counties can’t see customers’ medical conditions, so they can’t differentiate who may be most at risk.
While imperfect, the database is still an important resource for many counties to prepare and respond to emergencies.
According to Michael Romero with Placer County Health and Human Services, the county uses several methods to identify vulnerable populations, but the database from PG&E can play a role in identifying where to open resource centers. The centers are often the only place where customers without backup generators can recharge life-sustaining medical equipment, like oxygen tanks.
Romero says the database can also help local emergency response officials develop evacuation plans based on the density of vulnerable populations.
But that information wasn’t available to Placer County until until hours before the shutoff.
Malashenko with the CPUC says PG&E refused to give this data to the majority of the impacted counties ahead of the outage.
“If they don’t have the information of who those people and customers are, then obviously there’s nothing they can do about it,” Malashenko said.
Placer, El Dorado, Lake and Sonoma counties confirmed they did not have an agreement in place with PG&E and could not access the information ahead of the shutoff. Counties like Butte and Yuba already had agreements in place. Plumas, Nevada, Humboldt, Mendocino, Napa, Amador and Alameda counties did not respond to requests for comment.
Malashenko says the utilities commission had discussed on several occasions the release of this information ahead of planned shutoffs. She says the state’s three major investor owner utilities agreed to release the data without non-disclosure agreements in place.
But ahead of the October 9 shutoff, Malashenko says PG&E suddenly refused, creating an urgent situation for the CPUC and local emergency response officials.
The day before the power went off, she wrote in an email to representatives with utilities, the CPUC and the Office of Emergency Services that, based on “multiple conversation[s] on this over the last few months,” it was her understanding that utilities would not require counties to sign an agreement to receive the database in advance of a shutoff.
“This has once again become an issue with PG&E,” she wrote of the non-disclosure agreements.
It’s unclear if PG&E also refused to give this information to local governments during earlier, smaller shutoffs.
After 9 p.m. on October 8 — less than three hours before the first wave of shutoffs would impact more than 1 million Californians — the CPUC drafted a letter ordering PG&E to hand over the information to counties, with or without a nondisclosure agreement in place.
“The imminence of [public safety power shutoff] events and the large number of residents that will be impacted, call for an immediate order to share this potentially lifesaving information,” CPUC executive director Alice Stebbins wrote in the letter, obtained by CapRadio via a public-records request.
Smith with PG&E argues the CPUC’s directions in the months leading up to the October 9 shutoffs were unclear. He says the utility insisted on non-disclosure agreements to protect sensitive customer information. Once the utility received the commission’s letter, he says, it granted access to the information via an online portal.
But like the utility’s public-facing website, the portal repeatedly crashed, leaving county emergency services with little or no access to the information.
“That was certainly something we struggled with, and apologized for,” Smith said of the website issues.
PG&E’s handling of the shutoff was widely criticized by state officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Smith says PG&E has since released information on medically vulnerable customers to cities and counties that requested it during subsequent shutoffs. But local jurisdictions claim otherwise.
In an October 23 letter to CPUC commissioners, a group of local governments — including Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties — said the problems persisted.
The commission’s order for utilities to disclose the information “had not been communicated to all of the affected local governments’ PG&E representatives,” according to the letter.
It also claimed PG&E’s emergency operations center staff, who are responsible for providing local governments with information via the online portal, were not made aware of the commission’s order.
“As a result, the information was withheld or delayed” during shutoffs after the October 9 event, according to the letter.
Some local governments say they haven’t experienced the same issues with PG&E during shutoffs.
According to Casey Hatcher, Butte County deputy chief administrative officer, the county signed a non-disclosure agreement in 2018 and has worked closely with PG&E during eight public safety shutoffs it experienced in the last couple years. Hatcher says the county did experience difficulties accessing information on at-risk customers during the October 9 shutoff, due to the portal crashing, but says the county’s overall interactions with PG&E during outages have been positive.
“We have a great relationship with our local [PG&E] representatives and the communication with PG&E was useful to help us plan for the [public safety power shutoff] events,” Hatcher said.
PG&E says the issue of disclosing the database to counties did not impact the utility’s alert system for notifying customers — including those in the medical discount program — about the shutoffs.
Follow us for more stories like this
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.