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Why Californians are furious at the utility company PG&E

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Many Californians are angry as the state’s largest power utility continues to intentionally cut off electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers in an attempt to avoid sparking wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric has been criticized in recent years for the role its equipment was found to have played in a series of catastrophic blazes across the state — including the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history.

The latest round of outages are expected to last at least through Thursday afternoon, PG&E said, with another round of shutoffs likely this weekend. It’s the second time the utility has shut off power to customers this month.

“Our first responsibility at PG&E is to keep everyone safe: our neighbors, their families, communities that we share. And that’s the only reason that we do this, to protect human life,” PG&E President and CEO Bill Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday night. “We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs and the safety issues that it brings with it, but we also understand the heartbreak and devastation of catastrophic wildfire.”

Anger has boiled over, and some people appear to be taking out their frustrations on the utility company’s employees.

Johnson said an employee in Glenn County was driving a company vehicle on Wednesday when a projectile believed to be a pellet from a pellet gun hit the front passenger window. The employee was not injured, but law enforcement and PG&E security are looking into the incident, Johnson said.

He also condemned previous acts of violence against company employees, many of whom live in the communities where they work.

“They’re not anonymous strangers,” Johnson said. “They’re your neighbors. They’re your friends.”

“So I understand these shutoffs could make people upset and even angry,” he continued. “But be upset at PG&E and don’t take it out on the people that are trying to help you.”

This isn’t the first act of retaliation against PG&E employees. During the shutoffs earlier this month, the company said its Oroville office was egged and the California Highway Patrol reported that someone fired a bullet into a PG&E vehicle.

Regardless of how people are choosing to vent their anger, for many Californians, the latest round of power outages is just one more misstep from PG&E.

The utility’s equipment caused wildfires

PG&E made headlines earlier this year when state investigators found the power company responsible for the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed thousands of structures.

The California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection determined that electrical transmission lines owned and operated by PG&E had caused the Camp Fire, and that dry vegetation, strong winds, low humidity and warm temperatures helped it spread.

The power company came under pressure from billions of dollars in claims tied to deadly wildfires, and filed for bankruptcy in January.

Following criticism for its role in the devastating wildfires, PG&E warned it would proactively turn off electricity more often and to more customers in order to prevent risky weather conditions from downing equipment and potentially sparking wildfires.

In May, California regulators announced new guidelines that would dictate when and how companies like PG&E could implement such measures.

It was blamed for a pipeline explosion

In 2010, a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by PG&E exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying dozens of homes.

A federal investigation in 2011 blamed the company for poor quality control measures that allowed for a defective section of pipe to be installed without detection or repair.

An independent state audit in 2012 said that PG&E had diverted more than $100 million collected from customers for gas safety operations, and instead used it on bonuses for executives and profits for stockholders, reported.

After the pipeline explosion, PG&E paid a $1.6 billion fine and paid hundreds of millions of dollar in claims to the victims and their families. It also replaced hundreds of miles of pipe, installed new gas leak detection technology and implemented recommendations from the NTSB.

And in 2017, the company was sentenced to five years of probation and was ordered to pay up to $3 million in advertising about the company’s behavior.

To make matters worse, California’s Public Utilities Commission found in 2018 that PG&E had falsified records related to its natural gas pipelines for five years following the 2010 explosion.

It has a history of intentional outages

PG&E has initiated several power outages just this year.

In June, the utility company cut off power to more than 15,000 customers in communities across California facing high risk of fires.

Late last month, the company shut off power to nearly 50,000 customers in northern California during dry and windy conditions. Earlier that same week, about 24,000 customers across three counties in the Sierra Foothills were left in the dark.

But PG&E’s history of massive blackouts goes back decades — many of them related to the California electricity crisis of the early-2000s.

In June 2000, about 97,000 PG&E customers in the Bay Area experienced rolling blackouts due to a shortage in electricity supply.

In January 2001, state regulators approved emergency rate hikes of seven to 15% for customers of PG&E and Southern California Edison after the companies argued they were at risk of bankruptcy.

California’s grid operator ordered the lights off for hundreds of thousands of customers just weeks later, prompting then-Gov. Gray Davis to declare a state of emergency. In March that year, those rolling blackouts became statewide, affecting more than 1.5 million customers.

Experts are divided on who is to blame for the crisis.

It will soon charge customers more

On top of the power outages PG&E customers are experiencing, they can soon expect to see their bills go up.

Electric bills will increase an average of $3.07 a month, while natural gas bills will rise $1.73, PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty told the Sacramento Bee.

The increases took effect on October 1, the paper reported, and the company says on its website that it does not make money as a result of the changes.

PG&E said the rate hikes were intended in part to ensure public safety against wildfires. But included in its proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission in April was a request to increase its return on equity — to boost investors’ profits.

That didn’t go over well with some.

“PG&E is requesting massive increases in costs to ratepayers in order (to) generate profits for investors — all while wildfire victims sit in bankruptcy,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s spokesman, Nathan Click, told the Sacramento Bee in April. “The governor strongly believes ratepayers shouldn’t be on the hook for unnecessary increases as the state’s process plays out.”

It still hasn’t upgraded its infrastructure

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered PG&E to fix its equipment to avoid repeats of incidents like the San Bruno pipeline explosion and wildfires — or shut down parts of the grid that had not yet been deemed safe.

Some customers, as well as state and local authorities, are frustrated that the company seems to have opted to inconvenience residents and businesses by shutting off power, rather than improving its infrastructure.

“I’m angry at PG&E,” Blair Roman, a PG&E customer in Mill Valley, said. “Most of my friends are angry as well.”

“They didn’t do what they were supposed to do and keep up with the lines and the power,” Roman said. “Their answer to everything is to just shut it off so we can’t get blamed for it. It’s a major inconvenience, it’s going to cost companies billions of dollars. And it all could have been avoided.”

The financing proposal that PG&E submitted in April included up to $28 billion that would go toward supporting upgrades to electric and gas safety, new pipelines and power lines, power generation and information technology. But critics say these upgrades should have been made long ago.

San Jose officials said they were talking to PG&E about improving their equipment.

“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,” deputy city manager Kip Harkness said.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, whose district includes areas affected by the Camp Fire, called the power outages “unacceptable.”

“PG&E’s decision to protect itself from liability at the expense of hardworking Californians will not be tolerated,” Nielsen said in a news release. “This disregards people’s livelihoods. We depend on electricity to live and earn a living.”

This story was originally published on October 10, 2019. It has been updated to reflect PG&E’s most recent intentional power outages.

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