SAN RAMON, Calif. – Pacific Gas and Electric promised regulators Thursday that it has learned from its mishandling of deliberate blackouts and won’t disrupt as many people’s lives during the pandemic this year, when the utility expects to rely on outages to prevent its outdated grid from starting deadly fires.
The contrite pledge came during a virtual hearing before the Public Utilities Commission, PG&E's chief regulator.
The commission is still in the midst of a nine-month investigation into the utility's bungled blackouts that infuriated more than 2 million Northern Californians over several days last autumn.
With wildfire danger even higher this year after an unusually dry winter, PG&E is gearing up to periodically repeat the outages later this summer and into the early fall when dry and windy conditions in Northern California traditionally escalate the danger.
This time around, the potential for blackouts to wreak havoc is higher as millions of people work and attend classes from home during the pandemic. If mishandled, the outages could also endanger the lives of people being supported by medical devices after contracting COVID-19.
Marybel Batjer, the PUC's president, opened the hearing by scolding PG&E and sternly warning that its “haphazard way" of handling blackouts last October and November can't be repeated.
Michael Lewis, interim president of PG&E's utility operations, accepted responsibility for last year's shortcomings, some of which he described as “awful." But he also insisted PG&E is in a much better position to reduce the scope of the blackouts and turn on the power more quickly after investing heavily in upgraded equipment and trimming trees around its power lines.
Those improvements, Lewis said, should reduce the number of customers affected by blackouts by at least one-third from last year and restore power within 12 daylight hours, a 50 percent reduction from its goals last year.