Questions mount about PG&E's choices for CEO and board directors

ByDan Noyes and Khaled Sayed KGO logo
Friday, April 5, 2019
Who is PG&E's New CEO Bill Johnson? An I-Team background report.
Pacific Gas and Electric announced a new CEO and 10 new directors for its board, but questions are mounting about the selections.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- One day after Pacific Gas and Electric announced a new CEO and ten new directors for its board, questions are mounting about the selections. PG&E declined the I-Team's request to interview the incoming CEO, Bill Johnson, today or to reveal how much he'll make in his new job. But, we've been combing the archives and talking to industry experts about what to expect.

Bill Johnson told Boston Consulting Group in a 2013 interview published online that he is a "long-time Grateful Dead listener, that's influenced me."

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The 65-year-old is now nominated to lead PG&E out of bankruptcy. He raked in $8.1 million last year as CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally-owned electricity corporation, making Johnson the highest-paid federal employee. In the interview with Boston Consulting Group, he described his management style as laid back, but with a keen focus.

"I'm not going to get too excited with good news," said Johnson. "I'm not going to get too down with bad news; I'm going to be pretty laid back."

Just last year, Johnson faced calls for his resignation after the TVA bought a pair of $10 million corporate jets and a $7 million luxury helicopter once owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for executives to use.

In the announcement yesterday naming Johnson as CEO, PG&E said he "is the right leader ... as we work to strengthen our safety culture and navigate a complex and challenging period in our company's history."

It's not an opinion shared by everyone in the industry.

"It's a very important job and it seems like there are better candidates out to do it," nuclear safety advocate David Lochbaum told Dan Noyes. When Johnson took over at North Carolina's Progress Energy, its five reactors were top-rated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Lochbaum said, within a year of Johnson arriving, the safety ratings fell. When he left, the ratings got better, and reactor safety declined after he arrived at his new job, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Lochbaum said, "So, it seems like the opposite of the Midas touch, under his tutelage, reactor safety performance drops."

Lochbaum adds that one big issue was slashing the maintenance program for the reactors.

Clean energy advocate Adam Browning is concerned that under Johnson, the TVA relied heavily on coal, and very little on wind and solar: "He doesn't have a good record on renewable energy."

RELATED: Closer look into Governor Gavin Newsom's letter about PG&E's consideration for its new board of directors

It's California state law that we move to 100-percent renewable energy by the year 2045. "What we've seen at his previous stops is really just an old-school utility, really heavily dependent on coal and fracked gas," said Browning. "We're trying to build the utility of the future; he's got a resume very much rooted in the past."

Former CPUC Member Catherine Sandoval told the I-Team, "Whatever they propose is not a done deal and PG&E should expect some real scrutiny about their picks." Sandoval echoes concerns about Johnson and the new board members proposed by PG&E. Half of the ten nominees come from East Coast investment firms.

"We need to see a commitment not just to PG&E's financial bottom line, but to the bottom line of the safety of Californians," Sandoval said.

Shareholders will get to vote on the new board and CEO at the annual meeting, May 21st. PG&E tells me Johnson's pay will be covered by shareholders, not ratepayers, and that half of his incentive compensation will be tied to safety performance.

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