CPUC Head Threatens to Fine PG&E Over Bungled Power Shutoffs

The president of the state’s Public Utilities Commission threatened Tuesday to impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against PG&E over its alleged mishandling of power shutoffs last month that she said jeopardized public safety.

CPUC President Marybel Batjer, joined by an administrative law judge, wrote the order issued Tuesday that described the Oct. 9-12 and Oct. 23- Nov. 1 shutoffs as “ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated (both internally and externally) and ineffectively communicated.”

The order demands that PG&E “explain why it should not be sanctioned” for various violations that risked public safety and why it shouldn’t face up to $100,000 in fines per violation.

The company must now meet with regulators on Dec. 4 in advance of a hearing on the accusations. PG&E officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday’s order.

While PG&E has admitted problems with its first major shutoff, it has also told a federal judge that it may have averted as many as 56 fires.

In a separate letter to state regulators Friday, the company said it found 13 cases of downed lines and 13 public safety hazards during the first of the three shutdowns. It has not yet filed reports on the subsequent shutdowns.

In its Oct. 23-25 report, the company acknowledged that it kept 67 transmission lines in operation because weather conditions did not merit their shutdown.

One of those lines, however, was the Geysers No. 9-Lakeville transmission circuit that has been tied to the Oct. 23 Kincade Fire, where PG&E has said a jumper cable broke on a hillside tower near Geyserville.

But Batjer’s order Tuesday is devoted to the risks from the way PG&E went about shutting off the power.

After the first shutdown left 729,000 customers across 35 counties without power for an average of 45 hours, the commission chided the utility for its admitted failures that included repeated website crashes, bungled coordination with local governments and failed customer notifications.

Some 23,000 customers were not alerted, including 500 who rely on electricity to treat medical conditions.

The company separately failed to identify major infrastructure, including the Caldecott Tunnel, that could be vulnerable to shutoffs.

The next shutoffs, which occurred back-to-back, from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1, spanned as many as 38 counties and involved nearly a million customers.

Many were in the dark for nearly a week.

“This even larger (shutdown) event, combined with the longer duration of power shutoffs experienced by customers, presented a risk to public safety and resulted in significant disruption to the public,” Batjer’s order states, but she did not identify specific violations involved in that second series of shutdowns.

Meanwhile, the commission is set to vote Wednesday on whether to launch a formal regulatory investigation into how all three of the state’s major investor-owned utilities, including PG&E, conducted power shutoffs so far this year and whether any of them should face fines.

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