Watchdog: PG&E should be fined $ 166 million for botched outages

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California Public Utilities Commission independent consumer watchdog recommends Pacific Gas & Electric be fined nearly $ 166 million for the company’s failure to properly warn customers of a series of power outages intentional last fall.At their peak, the so-called public safety power cuts of October 2019 left nearly a million PG&E customers in 38 counties without power, some for a week. The blackouts were designed to prevent electrical equipment from igniting flames like the campfire, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people after being triggered by a PG&E power line a year earlier.

But the San Francisco-based company failed to notify tens of thousands of customers that power outages were imminent, including hundreds who depended on regular electricity to power vital medical devices. Many people were unable to access the PG&E website for several days as it was overwhelmed with visits from residents of northern and central California seeking information.

The PUC Public Advocates Office argued in a brief Friday afternoon that the utility should be fined $ 101.29 million for failing to notify so-called basic medical clients; $ 41.51 million for the inaccessibility of its website; $ 15.3 million for failing to properly notify facilities such as hospitals, fire departments and water services; and $ 7.64 million for repeated failure to notify certain customers.

The power outages “have disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians and caused substantial economic damage,” the Consumer Watchdog wrote. “If this box is not checked, PG & E [public safety power shut-off] failures will result in loss of life. ”

In its own filing to the committee on Friday, PG&E argued that it should not pay a fine. The company said it “has undertaken a multi-month process to educate, prepare and support” its customers ahead of the fiery fall weather conditions of 2019, and as a result of this process “successfully notified more than 1.75 million customers – over 97% of the population affected by the events in question. ”

“To be sure, our goal is 100% notification,” the company wrote.

PG&E also wrote that it “acted quickly to resolve the website issues and restore access to the website as soon as possible”, and was able to increase the capacity of the site to be fully operational. available during intentional outages later in the month.

Most recently, the utility cut power to 361,000 customers as high Diablo winds blew across northern California this week. Spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email that since last year, the company “has worked diligently to update and improve our business processes and systems to [public safety power shut-off] smaller, shorter and smarter events for our customers. ”

“We know that the loss of power disrupts people’s lives significantly, especially for those with medical needs and clients who are sheltering at home in response to COVID-19,” she said.

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have also used power cuts as a tool to limit the danger of wildfires. But neither of the utilities has turned to intentional blackouts as much as PG&E, which has the state’s largest and most forested service territory, as well as the worst recent history of fires started by power lines. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2019 under the weight of around $ 30 billion in fire-related liabilities, finally coming out of bankruptcy court this summer.

In addition to what critics see as neglect of utilities, climate change has played a major role in fueling more devastating fires in California and the West. The Golden State has seen five of the six largest fires in its modern history since August.

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