California officials are not happy about Pacific Gas & Electric's handling of its massive fire-prevention power outage last week.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state regulators on Monday demanded that PG&E address the communications and technology breakdowns that marred its response to the outage and find ways to limit the disruption from future such events.
Newsom sent a letter to PG&E CEO Bill Johnson, decrying the “extreme failures” in the state’s largest-ever “public safety power shutoff,” or PSPS, event. PG&E’s phased outages across more than 30 Northern California counties affected more than 700,000 customer accounts, or more than 2 million people, starting early Wednesday morning and lasting through the weekend.
Newsom cited multiple breakdowns in PG&E’s communications during last week’s event, including the crash of its website, meant to provide up-to-date outage information to customers and government agencies alike. The crash left PG&E call centers overwhelmed and forced customers and government officials alike to wait on hold for hours to get basic information, Newsom noted.
These failures were “particularly alarming,” he wrote, given that PG&E top officials have insisted that the utility was ready to handle such a large-scale event. Indeed, in the months before, it turned down assistance from public agencies including the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, he wrote. But during last week’s outage, the state was forced to activate its emergency operations center in order to assure the safe operation of railroads, water treatment systems and other key infrastructure amid the outage.
Newsom, who was vocal in his criticism of PG&E throughout last week’s event, proposed the utility pay each of the approximately 738,000 customers who lost power an automatic rebate of $100 per residential customer and $250 per business customer as "compensation for their hardships.”
Newsom directed the California Public Utilities Commission to to conduct a comprehensive review of PG&E’s execution of last week’s event, and provide “concrete and expedited steps to both limit and focus the use of PSPS events as a wildfire-prevention tool in the future.”
The CPUC quickly complied. President Marybel Batjer sent PG&E’s Johnson a letter on Monday afternoon, demanding the utility take a series of “immediate corrective actions” to fix numerous problems revealed in last week’s PSPS.
Batjer highlighted the website crash and lack of communications as a “major failure” and ordered PG&E to scale up its operations to ensure it doesn’t happen again. At a minimum, that must include securing enough bandwidth to support the maximum number of customers expected to lose power, along with additional surge capacity, for both online and call center operations. PG&E must also “stress-test” its system and protect it from cyberattacks that may come during power outages.
PG&E responded Monday night with a statement that acknowledged the hardship it had caused its customers, noting that its outage appeared to have prevented fires from starting, as well as saying that it welcomes "feedback from all our stakeholders, including our regulators, lawmakers, customers and communities."
The CPUC ordered PG&E to improve its coordination with the county and tribal emergency management departments responsible for much of the response to power outages across the utility’s far-flung territory. The minimum actions required included setting up dedicated communications channels with each department and sharing information on “medical baseline” customers, or those who need electricity for medical or life-support equipment.
The CPUC letter also ordered PG&E to “take all possible measures” to limit the duration and scale of future fire-prevention outages. That included a mandate to strive to restore all customers in 12 hours or less on average, the same standard applied to post-storm restorations, and to make plans in advance for “mutual assistance” from other agencies or utilities if it believes that’s needed to hit that goal.
Batjer also directed PG&E to examine the multibillion-dollar grid-hardening and wildfire-mitigation projects it’s been engaged in since late last year to determine if they can be prioritized to reduce the impact of PSPS events. “In the immediate term, PG&E should consider an alternative mechanism of reducing scope of PSPS events, particularly by prioritizing risk-reduction measures for distribution and transmission lines that serve large populations and critical infrastructure,” she wrote.
The CPUC has put its demands on a fast track, setting Thursday as the deadline for PG&E to file its response, and scheduling an emergency meeting on Friday that PG&E’s top executives will be required to attend.
“Failures in execution, combined with the magnitude of this PSPS event, created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated,” Batjer wrote. “It is critical that PG&E, along with all the other utilities in the state, learn from this event and take steps now to ensure mistakes and operational gaps are not repeated.”