Top PG&E officials face criticism from state utility regulators at emergency hearing over blackouts

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- PG&E received some serious criticism from state regulators at an emergency hearing about last week's unprecedented blackouts. Top officials from the utility testified that the power outages were necessary for public safety, but admitted mistakes in many areas.

The Public Utilities Commission demanded that the top PG&E officials responsible for ordering last week's blackouts and for handling their execution testify at this emergency hearing.

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"I can attest that no one gets into this line of work with the dream of having to turn lights off on customers," testified Andy Vesey, PG&E President and CEO. "It runs counter to our nature, it's not in our DNA, and it's not what our customers expect."

The blackouts, what PG&E calls "Public Safety Power Shutoffs", affected more than 700,000 customers in 35 counties.

"I'm hearing we're gonna, we're planning, we're gonna have a playbook by the end of the year," Marybel Batjer, CPUC President. "You gave a very nice speech or a few words about anticipation, I could tell you, you guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff."

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PG&E was criticized for ordering such a widespread blackout, instead of targeting the areas at highest risk; for its website that crashed several times, frustrating ratepayers who were looking for information; for phone calls from customers that went unanswered.

"I acknowledge that we were not fully prepared to support our customers to the best of our ability, given the size and scale of this Public Safety Power Shutoff event," said Laurie Giammona, PG&E SVP Customer Service. "And I am personally committed to fixing those gaps."

PG&E also received criticism for failing to share information with state and local emergency officials, and failing to provide up-to-date blackout maps.

They pledged to step up replacing bare wires with covered wires in high fire danger areas, to move wires underground, and to do a better job of clearing trees and vegetation from around power lines.

"Seeing a path to getting to the point where these widespread events are not necessary is where we all need to be. So how are we going to get there," asked Liane Randolph, CPUC Commissioner.

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Bill Johnson, PG&E President and CEO, answered, "Probably a 10 year timeline to get to a point where it's really ratcheted down significantly. I think it will be better every year, I think everybody gets better at it every year and with every event."

The commission also asked about that controversial party last week on the anniversary of the 2017 North Bay wildfires -- two days of wine-tasting for PG&E's biggest gas customers at a Sonoma County winery.

Andy Vesey testified, "We have taken appropriate measure to insure it will never happen again and that there will be no customer funds that will support any of the activities that took place there."

PG&E is also planning for this scenario: what if they call a blackout and a major earthquake hits? Just one of the many issues they are addressing, as they try to work their way through bankruptcy.

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.
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