Pacific Gas & Electric is getting hit with a nearly $150 million bill for neglect that caused Northern California wildfires during the past two years and mismanagement of blackouts designed to prevent the utility’s crumbling power grid from causing more damage.
The one-two punch was delivered Wednesday. California power regulators are fining PG&E $106 million for its mishandling of power outages in 2019. The utility also reached $43.4 million in settlements with government agencies in three counties ravaged by wildfires ignited by its equipment during 2019 and last year.
That is just the latest financial fallout from years of perilous behavior affecting some of the 16 million people who rely on PG&E in a sprawling service territory. When the utility’s fraying equipment or inability to properly trim trees around its power lines hasn’t been wreaking havoc in the form of wildfires, PG&E has been exasperating customers with botched blackouts that have at times lasted several days during hot and windy conditions.
A series of power outages imposed during the autumn 2019 went so awry that California’s Public Utilities Commission quickly opened an investigation into PG&E’s conduct. An Associated Press investigation later determined t hat only a handful of PG&E’s emergency personnel had received training in the disaster response playbook that California has used for a generation before those 2019 blackouts.
In an 89-page decision outlining the reasons for its fine, regulators blasted PG&E for a overwhelmed website that couldn’t handle incoming traffic from customers wondering whether they would have power, as well its failure to give adequate advance warning of the blackouts to about 50,000 customers.
Although PG&E is being fined $106 million, the utility won’t be paying that much now. That’s because it is being credited for $86 million that it had already been ordered to refund to customers affected during the lengthy 2019 outages.
The decision imposing the fine will become effective in 30 days barring an appeal or a request for review.
In a statement, PG&E acknowledged its handling of the 2019 outages “fell short of what our customers expect and deserve” while highlighting improvements it has made since then to reduce the scope and duration of blackouts that are expected to periodically occur for at least for at least several more years while PG&E tries to improve its grid.
“We will continue to make additional improvements to support our customers, while working to keep them safe,” PG&E said.
The $43.4 million in settlements will cover some of the costs incurred by 10 government agencies during the Kincade Fire that destroyed more than 100 homes in Sonoma County during October 2019 and the Zogg Fire that killed four people in Shasta County last September. Some of the money will also go to Tehama County, where the Zogg Fire also raged.
The payments won’t wipe PG&E’s slate entirely clean.
The San Francisco company is still facing 33 criminal charges of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health in Sonoma County for the Kincade Fire — accusations that PG&E denies. The state also forwarded a March report blaming the Zogg Fire on PG&E to the Shasta County District Attorney’s office to determine if criminal charges may be warranted there.
PG&E’s neglect has had even more catastrophic consequences, most notably during 2017 and 2018 when a series of wildfires blamed on its equipment burned down more than 28,000 buildings and killed more than 100 people.
The devastation prompted PG&E to spend 17 months in bankruptcy court, where it negotiated a $13.5 billion settlement with wildfire victims. It also resulted in the company pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in Butte County, where the town of Paradise was wiped out by the Camp Fire in 2018.
After emerging from bankruptcy protection last summer, PG&E hired a new chief executive, Patricia “Patti” Poppe, to oversee its grid during a process expected to last for most of this decade and, in this case, clean up some of its past messes.
“When I joined PG&E earlier this year, I said that I wanted to make it right and make it safe for our customers and communities,” Poppe said.
Even so, PG&E continues to be haunted by its conduct before Poppe started her job in January.
California power regulators last month rebuked PG&E for ongoing neglect of its power lines last year. And the utility is scheduled to appear next week before a federal judge weighing whether its role in the Kincade Fire violated its probation terms for a criminal conviction that came down after its natural gas lines below up a suburban neighborhood south of San Francisco in 2010.