SAN FRANCISCO – Less than a week after utilities shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers up and down California, experts and regulators are beginning to assess what went wrong and what the future portends.
Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to more than 700,000 customers in 34 counties on Oct. 9 because of high winds. Some households were without electricity for 72 hours, a spokesman said. Southern California Edison shut off electricity to more than 24,000 customers, starting on the same day.
The biggest failure, experts and customers alike said, was communication. Residents complained they did not receive adequate notice of the shutdown or no notice at all and could not get on the utilities’ websites.
Lessons learned from the shutdowns are critical because more will take place, experts said.
“I suspect for the next few years these are going to occur,” said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy Institute. “No one involved in this thing thinks it was a one-time event.”
The California Public Utilities Commission on Monday ordered PG&E to take immediate corrective actions, and Gov. Gavin Newsom called on the utility to give residential customers who lost power $100 rebates.
Commission President Marybel Batjer told PG&E it must try to restore power within 12 hours in the future, reduce the size of outages, develop systems to ensure call centers and the website are accessible and develop a “communication structure” with counties and tribal governments so they can respond to emergencies.
“Failures in execution, combined with the magnitude of this ... event, created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated,” Batjer said.
After Newsom’s request and the commission’s letter, Bill Johnson, PG&E’s chief executive, said the utility looked forward to learning how it could improve but called the power shut-off “the right decision.”
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said the utility cannot determine whether rebates should be given until the utilities commission evaluates the shutdown. He also said PG&E could not rule out more shutdowns later this fall.
Some experts said utilities should not have unilateral power for deciding when to shut off power. Utilities have “too much incentive” to cut power because they bear full liability if their equipment sparks a blaze, Borenstein said.
During a shutdown, the risk shifts. “We bear the cost,” he said.
He said the state should create some sort of committee that includes public safety officials, elected officials, utilities and the Public Utilities Commission to make power shut-off calls in the future.
Utilities have sparked fires for decades, but they are now more destructive because of droughts produced by climate change and the movement of people into remote, highly vegetated regions, experts said.