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California regulator criticizes utility over power outages

Blasted over power outages

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," 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.

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."



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