OpEd by Bill Johnson, CEO and President, PG&E Corporation as it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle October 17, 2019
Turning off power is not how PG&E wants to serve our customers. That’s not what our company is about, nor what any of us came here to do.
Electric service is fundamental in modern life, and we have always taken great pride in providing that service.
But here’s where we stand today: More than half of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and Central California is considered by state officials to be at high risk of wildfire.
In 2012, that designation applied to just 15% of our service area.
The speed at which our landscape has become a tinderbox is unnerving. It’s now home to 129 million dead, dying and diseased trees.
In this environment, the dry, severe winds that rise from the east during this time of year compound the risk for wildfire. Any spark can touch off a catastrophe.
When those conditions arrived last week, we made the tough decision to turn off large parts of our electric system. We did that for one reason: to keep our customers safe.
Our decision achieved that purpose. We did not have a catastrophic wildfire in our service area.
We did see damage to our system because of the wind. When we patrolled all 25,000 miles of lines that we turned off, we found more than 100 confirmed cases of wind-related damage — including trees into power lines and downed power lines.
Had we not shut off power, this type of damage could have sparked a fire. In fact, vegetation contacting lines was the very cause of a number of fires in the North Bay two years ago.
We hear the anger about how disruptive it is to live without power. Losing service was a hardship for our customers, whom we do not want to disappoint, and it brings its own safety concerns with it. It also comes on the heels of tragedies in recent years that have eroded public trust in PG&E. We recognize this.
But as we evaluated the science about the conditions and the risk — in consultation with numerous state agencies — we believed this was the right thing to do for public safety. And we still do.
Can we get better at these types of power shut-offs going forward? Yes, absolutely, and we will.
Our communication channels were insufficient. Millions of people needed information immediately, and our website and call centers did not fully meet that challenge. We are working to fix that.
We’re working to improve coordination with state and local government agency partners.
We’re also intent on narrowing the scope of these types of safety outages, so that we don’t have to disconnect such a large number of customers.
In other words, we want to do this the best way we can and get everyone back to normal as quickly as possible.
Beyond these improvements, we’re working hard to make these shut-offs unnecessary. In the months and years ahead, PG&E will continue hardening the electric grid with stronger poles and lines, putting power lines underground in certain areas, and adding new technology that improves weather forecasting and real-time monitoring. We are moving as quickly as we can on these fronts.
We also completed an unprecedented inspection of our electric infrastructure earlier this year, and repaired any items needing immediate attention. We shared these results with the public and our regulator.
But, even as we do these things, we must also ask the people and communities we serve to prepare for more safety shut-offs, should similar weather conditions occur again, as well as other emergencies and natural disasters.
None of us wants a future where safety shut-offs are commonplace, or even imaginable. But our intent is to show our customers that PG&E will always act with their safety foremost in our decision-making, no matter how difficult that action may be.