California politicians ripping PG&E: ‘The Wild West doesn’t work’

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SACRAMENTO — California political leaders were quick to raise concerns about the scope and duration of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s planned blackouts as the company began turning off power to large portions of the state.

Lawmakers said the prospect that 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California could lose power for several days demonstrated a need for legislation to ensure PG&E doesn’t overuse the practice.

The company says it must shut off power during dry, windy weather to keep its equipment from sparking more wildfires like those that killed scores of Californians in 2017 and 2018.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who has proposed a bill to restrict shut-offs, said the state needs clear standards for when utilities can flip the switch. “The Wild West doesn’t work,” he tweeted.

“I’m not opposed to planned blackouts, if they’re done in a targeted way,” Wiener told The Chronicle. “But we need to make sure that, going forward, massive blackouts don’t become a normal or regular occurrence.”

Wiener’s bill, SB378, would levy hourly fines against utilities during planned blackouts and prohibit them from charging customers for service during that time. The Legislature is expected to hold hearings on the bill in January.

Wiener said PG&E has a “strong financial incentive” to go broad with shut-offs to avoid the huge financial liabilities that could come from starting a fire. He said the state needs disincentives instead, so that utilities turn power off sparingly.

PG&E has said shut-offs are necessary as a “severe wind event” hits Northern California. “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers,” a spokesman said, “and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

But Wiener wasn’t alone in his criticism of the state’s largest utility.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a bill signing Wednesday that PG&E had focused for too long on its shareholders and not enough on customers.

“They are in bankruptcy because of their terrible management going back decades,” Newsom said. “They’ve created these conditions.”

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said the sweeping nature of the shut-offs shows PG&E has failed to make its system safe. He said blackouts that could impact people “in 34 of our 58 counties are by no means surgical.”

“PG&E needs to harden its system, make it resilient and make it safe, and not make power shutdowns the go-to response,” Hill said.

Members of California’s congressional delegation also raised alarms. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, questioned the possible length of the shut-offs, which PG&E has said could last up to a week in places.

“Understand need to prevent catastrophic firestorm but when this is over we must know why PG&E cast such a broad net + how long this tool will be used,” Huffman tweeted. “Widescale shutdowns are not a sustainable solution.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, criticized both the utility and state government, saying California is seemingly “becoming a third world country.”

“Expecting the power to stay on when the wind blows isn’t that giant a leap for mankind, yet here we are 50 years after the first moon landing having great inconvenience and personal or economic losses for many of our residents,” LaMalfa said.

The congressman said he spoke with PG&E CEO Bill Johnson this week and “impressed upon him” that the utility must improve its transmission lines to reliably deliver power.

Dustin Gardiner is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @dustingardiner

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