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PG&E, California watchdog battle over proposed fines for 2019 shut-offs

An independent watchdog agency that advocates for California utility customers is continuing to press state regulators to impose roughly $166 million in fines on PG&E over the utility’s handling late last year of widespread planned power outages meant to reduce wildfire risks.

Tuesday marked a key deadline for PG&E and the watchdog, the Public Advocates Office for the state Public Utilities Commission, to make their cases on whether the utility ought to be fined for not properly notifying tens of thousands of customers before shutting off their power in October and early November 2019.

Tuesday’s deadline also started a 60-day clock for the administrative law judge presiding over the case to issue a ruling, with the utilities commission issuing its own decision up to 30 days after that.

In a statement and a formal filing Tuesday afternoon, PG&E focused on the vast majority of its customers who were notified and noted that its 2020 outages haven’t been nearly as widespread as last year. The utility agreed it “could have and should have” implemented the outages better and pledged to work toward improvement while noting that it provided $86 million in bill credits to customers, funded by its shareholders.

But PG&E contended that shortfalls in its communications with customers did not merit fines. The problems extended to its website, which was unavailable or faulty at moments when people were clamoring for information about the scope of the first major shutoff in October 2019.

“We do not dispute that in hindsight, we did not accurately assess the levels of traffic that the large-scale PSPS events would generate, or that we could have conducted additional testing on our static content servers,“ PG&E said in its Tuesday filing, referring to its acronym for public safety power shut-offs meant to reduce fire risks connected to its equipment. ”But ... we do not believe that sanctions are necessary or appropriate in this context.“

The Public Advocates Office in late October recommended about $166 million in fines for PG&E. That figure includes about $102 million that would be spent on new devices to divide up its grid, limiting the scope of future outages. PG&E is already installing those devices in parts of its vast service territory, spanning much of Northern and Central California.

The remaining fine amount would be in remedies to affected customers: $100,000 to more than 150 public safety agencies, $5,000 to more than 1,500 medically vulnerable customers and $400 to more than 60,000 other customers.

On Tuesday, the watchdog agency argued in a filing before the Public Utilities Commission that “PG&E refuses to accept full responsibility "for its communication failures. The agency asked the Public Utilities Commission ”ensure that PG&E understands that no amount of avoidable public safety risk is acceptable as collateral, regardless of the size of the company’s operations or the number of customers it serves.“

A spokeswoman for the Public Advocates Office noted that the watchdog’s recommended sanctions were just for the 3% of customers who received no or little notice, rather than the 20% of customers who received some notice but not the minimum 24-hours advance warning.

Nine local governments, including Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, submitted a filing of their own in early November in support of fining PG&E. Most of that coalition is suing PG&E for damage caused by the 2019 Kincade fire that state investigators have said was started by PG&E’s power equipment.

The local governments found many reasons PG&E’s communications were inadequate but focused on PG&E’s outage maps, which the utility created with state emergency management officials in mind.

The maps, featuring numerous colored overlapping bubbles representing circuits, only showed approximate areas of potential outages with a buffer of roughly 20%.

That was all that the California Office of Emergency Services had asked for, but PG&E shared those same maps with local governments, the media and the public. Many found the schematics woefully lacking in specificity, especially when PG&E’s website went down, taking with it a useful tool in which people can enter addresses and determine whether they’ll lose power.

“PG&E’s thoughtlessness created significant confusion and frustration for impacted communities and caused local emergency managers to waste time and resources preparing critical facilities in the buffer zone for de-energization that was never scheduled to occur,” the local governments wrote.

A PG&E representative said the utility has worked over the past year to make its outages “smaller, shorter and smarter for our customers.”

“We continue to listen to our customers and act on what we hear,” PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said in a statement. “We have incorporated feedback from customers, from local, state and tribal officials, and from other wildfire safety experts.”

The filings stem from a November 2019 order from the Public Utilities Commission that forced PG&E to make a case for why it shouldn’t face sanctions for the communication issues. That order is part of the commission’s ongoing investigation into PG&E’s handling of last year’s outages.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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