California fire-preventing power shutoffs could continue for a decade, CEO says

A map from PG&E shows the areas where power may be cut. Nearly 500,000 Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) customers in Northern California were in the dark starting at midnight Wednesday as the company began shutting off power in an effort to help prevent starting a wildfire.

(CNN) — Power outages to prevent fires in Northern California may continue for a decade, the state’s biggest utility said Friday.

Utility PG&E chief executive Bill Johnson made the announcement during a California Public Utilities Commission meeting Friday. In a statement issued later, he tried to provide additional clarification.

“I didn’t mean to say we’d be doing it on this scale for 10 years. I think they’ll decrease in size and scope every year,” Johnson said in a statement.

Any of PG&E’s 5 million electric customers can be affected by the practice known as Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), which cuts electricity to avoid causing fires during high winds and dry conditions.

California Public Utilities Commission said it held the emergency meeting specifically to hear from PG&E’s executives regarding “the mistakes and operational gaps identified in the utility’s latest Public Safety Power Shut-off (PSPS) events and to provide lessons learned to ensure they are not repeated.”

Earlier this month, PG&E shut off power to almost 800,000 customers in Northern California to lower the risk of wildfires started by the company’s equipment. The outage racked up a bill of at least half a million dollars for the city of San Jose and disrupted schools and businesses.

The power company has said that it’s “probable” that its equipment started last year’s Camp Fire when a powerline touched nearby trees. The fire left 85 dead. In September, the company reached an $11 billion settlement with insurance companies for claims stemming from the Camp Fire and 2017 fires in the region.

As the environment changes, “dealing with wildfires is the new abnormal within California,” PG&E’s Sumeet Singh told reporters at the time.

The shutoffs have raised criticisms by officials, claiming that they are being used in place of long-term (and more costly) fire prevention maintenance.

“We really want to put pressure on PG&E to make investments on their infrastructure to make it safe and reliable so they won’t have to shut down when there are weather events,” San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said.

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded credits for customers who have been affected by shutoffs, saying they were the result of years of neglect.

Johnson issued a letter in response.

“We understand that shutting off power is an extreme measure that disrupts lives, and we certainly recognize that there are areas of our operations and communications which we must improve. I do believe our decision to execute this PSPS for the safety of our customers and the communities we are privileged to serve was the right decision,” the letter said.

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