Charred vehicles and the crumpled remnants of homes are all the remain in a neighborhood overran by the Camp Fire in the town of Paradise in Butte County on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

California Public Utilities Commission blasts PG&E for its handling of power shutoffs

“The management and response of the company PG&E to the events, to the PSPS, have been absolutely unacceptable.”

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday blasted PG&E amid the utility’s Public Safety Power Shutoff, which has affected more than 700,000 customers throughout the state since Wednesday.

During the commission’s regular meeting at its San Francisco office, CPUC President Marybel Batjer called the way PG&E has been managing the PSPS “unacceptable.”

“I understand the impact these events have on every Californian and deeply share the public’s concern regarding this current PSPS process,” Batjer said.

“The management and response of the company PG&E to the events, to the PSPS, have been absolutely unacceptable. The impact to the communities, the individual people, to the commerce of our state, the safety of our people, has been less than exemplary. This cannot be the new normal. We can’t accept it as the new normal and we won’t.”

Meanwhile, activists planned vigils for Thursday evening in San Francisco and Oakland “to demand an end to stopgap fixes to our broken electrical grid and its vulnerability to wildfires made more deadly by climate change.”

The vigils are expected to include community members, families, people with disabilities, and those affected by the PG&E power shut offs. They include the East Bay and San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise Bay Area, Local Clean Energy Alliance and No PG&E Bailout Coalition.

“These blackouts are a climate justice issue. The most vulnerable among us—the sick, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor—will face significantly harsher impacts from the shutoff with less ability to mitigate harm,” the organizers said in a statement. “We need a grid that delivers safe and reliable, clean power to all—instead of one that fails our communities.”

PG&E’s shutoffs began Wednesday, prompted by windy and dry weather in Northern California, impacting residents in 34 counties throughout the state.

According to the CPUC’s deputy executive director of safety and enforcement policy Elizaveta Malashenko, she and other state officials have been posted at PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center in San Francisco, closely monitoring the situation.

“Our concern is for public safety and do everything we can to minimize the impacts of these very serious events,” Malashenko said.

“Some of the issues that have come up are the coordination between PG&E and counties and local government. There have been a lot of challenges in how that’s been working. We’ve been doing what we can to monitor what’s happening, suggest recommendations on how to adjust the process as the events unfold, and also assisting with the dissemination of information,” she said.

In particular, she said, the CPUC has been working with PG&E to make sure that vulnerable customers, like the disabled and elderly, have been properly notified about the shutoff via telephone or physical visits to their residences.

“An emergent issue that we’ve also been monitoring very closely was the loss of the website’s capabilities,” she said, referring to problems many customers faced Tuesday and Wednesday as they tried to find information on the company’s website.

“This was a major concern for everyone engaged in this event,” Malashenko said.

She said that PG&E had 45 helicopters on hand watching for overhead conditions and more than 6,000 crewmembers ready to restore power when the dry and windy weather conditions died down.

Cal Fire has also been monitoring the situation and had already responded to over 200 ignitions throughout the state within the last two days, she said.

“We’ve done a phenomenal job of putting out those fires and keeping the communities out of harm’s way,” Malashenko said.

Ultimately, she said, “It’s a PG&E event so they are the ones who have the responsibility of communicating with the counties. So we can offer suggestions and fill in some of the gaps.”

Following the meeting, Mindy Spatt, spokesowman for The Utility Reform Network, which advocates for utilities customers, said that

organization members were “up in arms” over the shutoffs.

“They feel the message they’re getting from PG&E is that PG&E remains unable to trim trees or inspect its lines, so this is the only option to prevent PG&E from starting more fires. This is obviously not a good solution,” Spatt said.

“Yes, consumers would rather have their power shut off than have their homes and businesses burn down, but they would really rather have is a utility that can operate safely and it’s clear that we don’t have that,” she said.

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