PG&E wildfire safety blackouts could continue for 10 years, CEO says

Pacific Gas & Electric CEO Bill Johnson said Friday the California utility giant may have to impose widespread safety blackouts for up to 10 years in order to sufficiently upgrade equipment prone to sparking wildfires.

The company is in the process of trimming trees and upgrading infrastructure to limit the scope of safety blackouts and prevent future fires. PG&E drew widespread criticism after it abruptly shut off power for roughly 700,000 homes earlier this month in California after forecasts suggested a high risk of wildfires.

The decision caused confusion among customers, shut down traffic lights and impacted local business, prompting the California Public Utilities Commission to order PG&E executives to appear at an emergency meeting on Friday. At the meeting, Johnson disclosed that PG&E was still years away from sufficient upgrades to its grid.

“Making the right decision on safety is not the same as executing that decision well,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “PG&E has to be better prepared than it was this time.”

PG&E equipment was found responsible for a series of wildfires that caused billions of dollars of damage in California in recent years. The company filed for bankruptcy in January, citing an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities.

In periods of high wind, falling trees or branches can cause downed power lines to spark fires.

Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, ripped company executives for failing to provide adequate notice about the blackout. The company’s website crashed as customers sought details on the situation.

"You guys failed on so many levels on pretty simple stuff," Batjer said.

PG&E executives stressed that the decision to cut power was made with safety in mind. Johnson said the company will improve its preparedness procedures for future blackouts.

Power was restored on Oct. 12, three days after it was initially cut.

Authorities ordered roughly 100,000 residents to evacuate last week. At least three deaths were linked to the wildfires.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.