I-TEAM: History of PG&E's power problems

ByDan Noyes and Ken Miguel KGO logo
Saturday, November 2, 2019
PG&E says its equipment isn't responsible for planned power outages
President and CEO Bill Johnson refused to blame the utilities lack of maintenance for the recent outages and went so far as to suggest people who lost food in the power outage visit local food banks for help.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The latest rounds of planned power outages come after decades of problems for Pacific Gas and Electric. The utility has struggled since state lawmakers deregulated the energy producers in 1996.

Four years later-- utilities faced the perfect energy storm. Power producers manipulated the markets causing a power supply issue. Rolling black outs left nearly a hundred thousand Bay Area customers without power.

ABC7 SPECIAL: 'Fire, Power, Wind: What Now?'

In June, 2000, PG&E experienced rolling blackouts caused by that deregulation. It left 97,000 customers without power in the Bay Area.

In Jan. 2001, then Governor Gray Davis declared a state of emergency when blackouts caused by the energy crisis left several hundred thousand customers without power.

Governor Davis spoke with me from his Los Angeles office about those "rolling blackouts."

"I had two Republican leaders and two Democratic leaders that all insisted that we raise rates because utilities were going bankrupt. Well the reason utilities were going bankrupt was those same energy companies were charging like $1,000 for a megawatt hour rather than $15 a megawatt hour. So we all said no," said former Governor Davis.

In March 2001, another blackout turned out the lights on 1.5 million customers. Two months later, in May, another 167,000 had the lights go out.

The blackouts ultimately led to the ouster of Governor Davis. Voters blamed him for not solving the power crisis.

"Well, I understood their problem with it at the time," former Governor Davis told me "I couldn't convince people, ratepayers, that Enron, Dynegy, Reliant, Duke and the others Southern were ripping them off.

RELATED: PG&E CEO addresses customers who can't restock food spoiled during outage

But it was just the start of PG&E's woes as the company's aging infrastructure led to a major catastrophe.

On September 9, 2010 - a 30 inch natural gas pipeline exploded in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno. Eight people died. It took the utility 60 to 90 minutes to shut off the gas that fed the fire. We later learned poor record keeping and lax maintenance was to blame.

The utility was found guilty of safety violations and obstructing justice - and a judge ordered PG&E to pay $90 million and spend $32 million more for safety and governance improvements.

PG&E's maintenance of power lines came under fire again in 2017 - when the utility's power lines were blamed for stating fires in the North Bay. When the flames were finally doused, more than 8,000 structures were destroyed, 44 people were dead and at least 192 people were injured.

Next year, an even more deadly fire. The Camp Fire erupted near Paradise, ignited by a faulty electric transmission line. It killed 88 people and destroyed 18-thousand structures.

Anticipating the massive number of claims resulting from the fire, the utility filed for bankruptcy and began to lay out their plan to prevent future wildfires-- turning off the power in high danger areas.

They've now shut off power 6 times since they enacted their Public Safety Power Shutoffs.

Even though they cut power to some areas - PG&E now says their equipment may have been responsible for at least five Bay Area fires this month-- Kincade, Oakley, Milpitas, and two in Lafayette.

"Deregulation was entirely responsible for the problem in 2001," said former Governor Davis.

RELATED: Fires & Outages: The new normal has grown old and we're tired of it

I asked Former Governor Davis if we learned anything from those early outages, what can be done now to make things better?

"This problem is totally different." He said, "Climate change, worsening fires, more heat, far more casualties, much more property damage, but this problem can be solved, by having a summit and the application of World Class technology. We will figure this out."

Davis is giving Governor Gavin Newsom kudos for his handling of the current crisis, which includes his announcement today of a new energy czar.

For the latest stories about PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutoff go here.

For a look at more stories and videos by the ABC7 News I-Team go here.