SAN FRANCISCO — California’s top regulator excoriated top executives of the state’s largest utility even as Pacific Gas & Electric repeatedly said they know they failed to meet public expectations when it cut the power to more than 2 million people last week.
Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, called the emergency meeting Friday and ordered the executives to attend and explain themselves. She said she was “absolutely astounded” by what she thought were simple preparedness steps the utility could have taken.
Customers complained of overloaded call centers and a website that crashed throughout the Oct. 9 event. Local officials said they were left in the dark as well.
“I’m hearing, ‘We’re gonna, we’re planning, we’re going to have a playbook by the end of the year,’” she said nearly two hours into the meeting. “You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff.”
The CPUC meeting in San Francisco comes as outrage grows against PG&E, which cut off power to more than 700,000 customer accounts in northern and central California, saying that high wind forecasts could have damaged equipment and sparked wildfires.
Utility executives repeatedly said they know they could have done better and promised to do better and swore that they only had the public’s safety in mind when it cut off the power.
“To me, one of the keys to success in this business is happy and satisfied customers, which we don’t have today,” said Bill Johnson, CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp.
Andy Vesey, a PG&E executive, added that they did not think broadly enough and underestimated the needs of their customers and local governments.
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“We have to develop a mindset, or culture, of anticipation,” he said.
Johnson said it will take about a decade for the utility to get to the point where widespread safety outages are not necessary when fire danger is high.
He said the utility will get better with each new pre-emptive outage as it works to upgrade its equipment so blackouts affect fewer people.
Batjer ordered the meeting earlier this week, demanding the executives show up Friday and initiate a series of corrective actions, including a goal of restoring power within 12 hours, not the utility’s current 48-hour goal.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has blasted the utility for what he called decades of mismanagement, underinvestment and lousy communication. Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins asked a committee Thursday to “begin investigating and reviewing options to address the serious deficiencies” with PG&E’s current process.
Berkeley resident Marg Hall plans to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. The disability rights advocate said the outages are more than an inconvenience for some people with disabilities and the elderly.
“Friends, that even if their power wasn’t shut off, suffered health consequences from the stress of knowing that they were going to be abandoned,” she said.
PG&E said Monday its systems were damaged in more than 100 places — spots that could have been a potential source of ignition for a wildfire.
Wildfires in California are often caused by downed power lines and other utility equipment. A fire last year sparked by PG&E’s equipment mostly destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.