Pacific Gas Electric Co. President and CEO Bill Johnson (behind podium) spoke at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco on Friday, Oct. 11, to answer questions about the largest public safety shutoff in the country’s history. (Caroline Ghisolfi/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

PG&E: power restored to most customers as of Friday night

Utility stands by decision to shut down power lines in high winds

Nearly all Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers were set to get their power restored by Friday night after the largest public safety shutoff in the country’s history, the energy giant reported.

As of 6 p.m. Friday, power had been restored to 96 percent of Bay Area customers and 93 percent of customers statewide. PG&E said they expected to bring the lights back on for 98 percent or more of all customers by the end of the day Friday.

An “army of personnel” – including 44 helicopters – was engaged in line and safety inspection work to identify all damage and successfully complete the restoration by Saturday, PG&E officials said.

“Our emergency operation center remains in full operating capacities, our website is functioning correctly and our customer call centers are operating with augmented staff with an average wait time of 30 seconds,” CEO Bill Johnson said Friday at a news conference in San Francisco. “Everyone here is focused on the same thing: Getting customers restored as safely and as quickly as possible”

Despite public criticism, the company stood by its position that the shutoff was inevitable and necessary given the season’s extreme weather conditions.

Johnson called attention to fires that ignited this week in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and Kern counties. He said many similarly dangerous blazes could have sparked further north if PG&E hadn’t intervened.

“The winds we experienced, like the winds happening in Southern California, were of such speed that they blew branches and trees into our power lines, bringing about this risk of ignition,” he said. “Had those lines been energized, we’d have the potential for numerous instances of ignition. But thankfully those lines were not energized.”

About 738,000 customers in 34 Northern and Central California counties have been affected by the shutoff since it began Wednesday, triggering billions of dollars in damage. But Johnson said PG&E is not liable for the costs suffered by families, companies and cities over the past two days.

“This is a pure weather event,” Johnson said. “The company is not – I think – liable for these costs.”

However, PG&E admitted to not being adequately prepared for the event.

Johnson said the company is working to reinforce its website and call center to handle higher volumes of traffic, and update its emergency protocols in order to prioritize direct communication.

“If you’re a customer who would potentially be affected, we will contact you directly if we have your contact information,” Johnson said. “You will get a call, a text message, and an email.”

The company is also expecting to increase the number of its affiliated weather stations, and adopt new technology to narrow the scope of future shutoffs.

However, Johnson said it may take years before some of these improvements bring real change, and asked customers to be patient and flexible during this process.

“(The shutoff) was an extremely difficult decision to make. We know it would and did cause hardship for many of the people we’re privileged to serve,” Johnson said. “But given the choice we faced – the choice between hardship and safety – we chose safety, and safety will always be our first choice.”

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