PG&E Chief Pledges to Improve Communications

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) California's largest utility pledged to improve communications. But it reminded state regulators that its difficult decision to pre-emptively shut off power to more than 2 million people last week may have prevented deadly wildfires.

Bill Johnson, chief executive of Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., wrote Thursday in response to a demand from the president of the California Public Utilities Commission to appear at an emergency meeting Friday to answer questions about the outages.

Johnson said the utility understands the hardship the Oct. 9 outages caused for customers.

"At the same time, we ask our customers, their families and our local and state leaders to keep in mind the statistic that matters the most: there were no catastrophic wildfires," he wrote.

PG&E shut off power to more than 700,000 customer accounts in more than 30 counties throughout northern and central California, saying that dangerous wind forecasts could have damaged equipment and sparked deadly wildfires.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom has blasted the utility for what he called decades of mismanagement, underinvestment and lousy communication with the public. On Thursday, the leader of the California Senate asked a committee to "begin investigating and reviewing options to address the serious deficiencies" with PG&E's current process.

"The public understandably is outraged over the problems that arose with these shutoffs," Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins wrote in a memo to the Senate Democratic Caucus. "We owe it to our constituents to act."

In a pointed letter sent earlier this week, Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer scolded the utility for an "unacceptable situation" and ordered a series of corrective actions, including a goal of restoring power within 12 hours, not the utility's current 48-hour goal. She ordered the utility to provide corrective action.

Johnson agreed one area that needs significant improvement is communicating with customers, who were left scrambling for information because of overloaded call centers and a website that frequently crashed.

He also pledged ways to develop maps providing updated estimates of affected areas; establish better communications with local governments; and take steps to minimize the impact of any future outages.

"We understand that the size and scope of this event is untenable in the long term," he said.

PG&E said Monday its systems were damaged in more than 100 places -- spots that could have been a potential source of ignition for a wildfire.

Wildfires in California are often caused by downed power lines and other utility equipment. A fire last year sparked by PG&E's equipment mostly destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

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