Governor blasts PG&E over blackouts, saying it should follow San Diego's lead

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- California Governor Gavin Newsom kept the pressure on PG&E at a climate conference Tuesday afternoon in San Francisco, saying the utility might be too big to survive and calling for more competition.

The governor says PG&E can learn something from how San Diego handles their blackouts. They've embraced technology that helps them target power outages to very specific areas.

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Governor Gavin Newsom took aim at PG&E after his keynote speech to a climate change forum in San Francisco this afternoon.

"Why the hell do we still have overhead wires in fire-prone areas? That's about under-grounding, that's about hardening infrastructure. That's about looking at decentralizing the infrastructure and the grid itself, and micro-grids."

Newsom pointed to San Diego Gas and Electric that has, for 10 years, taken steps to avoid wildfires -- replacing wooden poles with steel, moving power lines farther apart, installing lines underground.

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On Tuesday, SDG&E announced "Firesafe 3.0", a campaign to use artificial intelligence, a new vegetation risk index and satellite-enabled fire alerts.

SDG&E Director of Fire Science, Brian D'Agostino, said, "The better we understand Santa Ana winds and the better we understanding how they impact the landscape in San Diego, the better decisions we can make as to where do we prioritize under-grounding moving forward."

San Diego already uses sensors and breakers that allow them to target specific areas for power outages. Last week, SDG&E warned they may cut power to 30,000 residents because of the high fire danger; the blackout turned out to be only 395 people.

Berkeley Public Policy Professor Steve Weissman said, "We haven't seen a catastrophic wildfire there since they put the new programs in place."

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Weissman said San Diego may be the gold standard, but they face fewer challenges than PG&E.

"They are dealing largely with coast line and desert and PG&E, on the other hand, has the mountains, it has snow to deal with, it has severe heat to deal with, it's got a very broad service territory."

PG&E is defending its unprecedented blackout last week that affected 736,000 customers in 35 counties, now saying inspections found more than 100 incidents of trees falling into lines or downed power lines from the high winds.

CEO Bill Johnson is preparing for Friday's emergency hearing before the the Public Utilities Commission.

"Were we fully prepared to meet this risk? No, we weren't," said Johnson at a news conference Friday. "Obviously because of what we're having to do over the last year, so did the risk change? Yeah, it changed and got a lot bigger and are we working toward it? We are."

Johnson says PG&E is attacking the problems on many fronts, but the risk is increasing. He points out that in 2012, only 15 percent of its coverage area was labeled as presenting a "high-fire threat". Today, it's 50 percent.

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

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