California utility sees decade of power cuts to avoid wildfires

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(Reuters) – Northern Californians can expect widespread power cuts aimed at preventing wildfires for a decade while Pacific Gas & Electric upgrades wires systems, cuts back trees and takes other safety measures, the utility’s chief executive said on Friday.

Bill Johnson, who became CEO of bankrupt PG&E Corp earlier this year, told an emergency meeting with the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that recent power outages included lack of information and hardships that cannot be repeated.

But the day when preemptive power outages would no longer be necessary is still years away, he said.

“Eventually the technology will get us to a point where we don’t need to be doing it,” he said. “This is probably a 10-year timeline to get to a point where it’s really ratcheted down significantly.”

The state utilities regulator called the emergency meeting with senior PG&E executives after ordering the utility to take corrective actions related to its handling of the power outages, which have been criticized for being conducted on too large a scale with insufficient communication with customers.

“This is not hard,” PUC President Marybel Batjer said during the meeting to the panel of PG&E executives assembled. “You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff.”

PG&E cut off electricity to more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California last week in a bid to reduce wildfire risks posed by extremely windy and dry weather.

The shutdown was unprecedented in its scope, and PG&E’s website and call center were overwhelmed by customer traffic.

“I apologize for the hardship and the lack of information. This cannot happen again,” Johnson said.

He said he expected the precautionary outages would decrease in size and scope each year.

To reduce the need for them, the utility will create smaller sections of wires so that shutoffs can be more targeted, increase vegetation management and use new materials to cover power lines, Johnson said.

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday urged the company to provide credits or rebates to affected customers.

The outage is the latest in a string of events for which PG&E has received widespread public criticism. The utility filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, citing potential civil liabilities in excess of $30 billion from major wildfires linked to its transmission wires and other equipment.

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