PG&E boss faces lawmakers as new California blackouts loom

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The CEO of the nation’s largest utility faced angry California lawmakers Monday over the company’s decision to turn off power for millions of people to prevent its outdated equipment from starting wildfires.

The hearing comes as Pacific Gas & Electric plans another deliberate blackout this week to prevent strong winds from toppling its power lines and igniting blazes.

Lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the bankrupt company for leaving millions of people in the dark for days at a time during dry, windy weather last month.

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. CEO Bill Johnson was set to testify during the legislative oversight hearing at the state capitol. Johnson has defended the company’s actions as “well planned and executed,” arguing the power shutoffs have saved lives during the lengthy wildfire season.

In a statement, Johnson said that the shutoffs were “the right call in terms of safety and reduction of fire risk. I also believe that there were elements of the process that did not work well, and the criticism is deserved.” He said the company wants to improve the process and welcomes outside review.

Public officials have criticized the shutoffs for being too broad and poorly executed. Last week, state regulars launched a formal investigation.

Lawmakers were very critical of PG&E in opening statements Monday, with Sen. Scott Wiener saying, “We are in a state of emergency.”

“This company, in my mind, has forfeited it’s right to operate as an investor-owned utility,” the San Francisco Democrat said.

Meanwhile, people in Northern California were bracing for more outages. PG&E has started notifying customers in parts of 22 counties that it may turn off electricity Wednesday because of strong winds that could spark wildfires.

The latest planned blackout is expected to affect 660,000 people throughout Northern California, including the San Francisco suburbs, Sierra Nevada foothills and wine country.

PG&E is trying to emerge from bankruptcy after its equipment sparked the most devastating wildfire in California history last year, destroying roughly 19,000 buildings and killing 85 people. The company filed for bankruptcy in January after facing potential damages of up to $30 billion.

Preemptive power shutoffs are not new to California, but the scope of those by PG&E this year have been unprecedented. The company has more than 5 million customers in Northern California, including the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. It operates about 125,000 miles (200,000 kilometres) of power lines, including many in dry, dense forests that act as fuel for fires.

Lawmakers have set a June 30 deadline for PG&E to emerge from bankruptcy or else forfeit participation in a fund designed to help cover damages from future wildfires. But negotiations have bogged down as shareholders and creditors battle in bankruptcy court over the future of the company.

A federal bankruptcy judge has appointed a mediator to try to resolve the case. But Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened to intervene if the company can’t reach an agreement by June 30, including a potential state takeover.

California’s other large investor-owned utilities — San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — also preemptively shut off power this year to prevent wildfires. But their shutoffs affected far fewer people and did not last as long.

Sen. Henry Stern questioned an Edison executive, saying his grandmother had her power shut off without warning and has medications that need to stay refrigerated.

Lawmakers also are scheduled to question several top officials from the Newsom administration, including Ana Matosantos, Newsom’s newly appointed “energy czar,” and Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Others scheduled to testify include public school superintendents, local government leaders, business owners and advocates for the elderly and medically vulnerable.

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