By Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - California regulators are being asked to fine Pacific Gas & Electric nearly $166 million for failing to properly inform customers before it cut power to millions of people last year.

The sweeping outages without proper notification were “a major public safety failure” that disrupted lives and posed a risk to medically vulnerable people who use electrical equipment such as wheelchairs, iron lungs and dialysis machines, according to a brief submitted Friday to the state Public Utilities Commission by the Public Advocates Office.

The office is an independent organization within the PUC that is charged with representing utility taxpayers’ interests before the agency.

Two blackouts in October 2019 lasted several days and affected dozens of Northern California counties. The resulting chaos - phones and gas pumps, elevators, traffic lights and even water pumps stopped working - created furious criticism.

The PUC last November declared that PG&E - the nation’s largest utility - had created risks to public safety by failing to properly communicate with customers and work with local governments before enacting sweeping Public Safety Power Shutoff blackouts from Oct. 9-12 and again from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.

Altogether, the outages affected 1.67 million customers, which works out to more than 4 million people if each customer account serves between two and three people.

The outages occurred during hot, dry, windy weather and were designed to prevent PG&E power lines or other equipment from being knocked over or fouled and sparking catastrophic wildfires.

PG&E equipment caused several devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings.

However, the Public Advocates Office said PG&E “put the lives of many vulnerable customers at risk, and either failed in or disregarded its obligations to public safety partners, local agencies, and essential service workers.”

Furthermore, PG&E continues to fall short in its notification efforts, the office argued.

The office laid out three possible fines, ranging from about $87.5 million to a high of $277.5 million but recommended the PUC adopt the middle range of $165.7 million.

An email to PG&E seeking comment wasn’t immediately returned. The utility has until Nov. 11 to respond to the fine recommendation.

The utility did provide widespread notification to customers for each of five safety shutoffs it conducted this year, including one last week that affected about 1 million people in 34 counties.

However, the Public Advocates Office argued that the utility hasn’t learned its lesson and added: “if left unchecked, PG&E’s PSPS failures will result in loss of life.”

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