The Trump Administration may be the decade’s defining example of an inept yet destructively shady organization, a gang that can’t shoot straight. But one of the nation’s largest utilities, a literal corporate felon called Pacific Gas & Electric, is giving Team Trump a run for its money this week — when it cut power to me and around 2 million of my neighbors in the most confusing manner possible.
Here in tech-rich, wine-and-weed-filled Northern California, we’ve spent years trying to focus on innovation and ignore PG&E’s incompetence. Sure, we grumbled for a few days when a court found it guilty on six felony charges for a deadly gas explosion in 2010. We fumed at the judge’s finding that it had taken $100 million earmarked for repairs and turned it into executive bonuses and shareholder payouts. Then we went right back to paying our rate-hiked utility bills. Because what choice did we have?
For-profit PG&E came back to bite us again in 2018. Years of installing cheap-ass non-insulated power lines next to trees it neglected to trim caused the largest, deadliest fire in America in the last 100 years. Victim lawsuits sent PG&E running to the shelter of bankruptcy court. Still it did not learn its lesson, diverting a total of $4.5 billion to shareholder dividends, according to its probation judge, while asking the bankruptcy judge if it could please pay its executives $11 million in bonuses. (But don’t worry, its new CEO Bill Johnson might only get a $3 million bonus, instead of $6 million, if repair work isn’t completed on time.)
So when PG&E announced this week that it was going to preemptively cut power to millions of customers for as long as six days during a period of high winds and fire risk, it’s fair to say customers were expecting a total shitshow. But even the most cynical among us had no idea just how many unforced errors the power company in the world’s fifth largest economy could make. So much so that it should be a case study in how not to manage a crisis.
At the center of this crisis is PG&E’s indecision and inability to communicate — with government as well as residential users. It failed to inform Caltrans of a planned outage to a crucial Bay Area tunnel until the last minute, then relented and kept the power on. It failed to forewarn the nation’s top public university, UC Berkeley, until the morning its power was cut. Some customers were lucky enough to receive one text warning of a general outage, with no specifics. I got a robocall from the company that was 30 seconds of pure silence. Most didn’t even get that.
Nor could we find details on the PG&E website, which had crashed, because who could have guessed in 2019 that millions of customers would go online to see if their house was in the outage zone? Even those that got through to the site found a map that was frustratingly imprecise. It looked like a child had scrawled on it with a yellow highlighter.
News organizations and Bay Area cities scrambled to produce their own, clearer maps. One developer built the most reliable map to date, although it was hampered for hours, he said, because “unfortunately their outage API is also having an outage.”
In the midst of all this, apparently fearing that the peasants were grabbing pitchforks, PG&E beefed up the security barriers at its San Francisco HQ. Late in the day it held a belated press conference to announce a newer, more robust website. A company spokesperson promised it would release the URL immediately following the press conference.
Reader, they did not release the URL until much later, in a tweet which was promptly deleted. And when we finally got a look at the site, it provided no more information than whether the power at your address was currently on or not. Which, as a savvy homeowner, you already kind of know.
By that point, my East Bay neighbors and I had been jerked around four times about when the power would go off. The first official plan was for a shutoff midnight Tuesday. Then it became 9 a.m. Wednesday. Then it was noon. But the power remained and confusion reigned. A local NPR station got word from the sheriff’s department that 8 p.m. was the new outage time, a fact that even the mayor of Berkeley did not know. Then it jumped to 9 p.m. The lights finally went out at 10:50 p.m. You believed any of the earlier times and packed your freezer food into rapidly warming coolers? Tough luck.
At time of writing, there is no clear communication about when the power will go back on. Some sources say power line inspections will begin Thursday afternoon. PG&E says it will happen “when the weather passes,” whatever that means. Officially, we are required to prepare for an outage lasting into the middle of next week. Meanwhile there’s a new fire outside the official outage zone, suggesting the company couldn’t even get that part right.
Infirm? Ill? Desperately need power? Don’t worry, PG&E has you covered — with one barebones “resource center” per county. But because Oakland and Berkeley are in the same county, Alameda, this means PG&E is offering 100 seats for 1.5 million Californians. Not only that, but the center is in hard-to-reach hills, between two fire-risk parks, and is only open during daylight hours.
Many customers began to wonder if PG&E was being deliberately incompetent. The theory is that if California politicians including Gov. Gavin Newsom — whose campaigns PG&E has funded handsomely — would just pass laws making them immune from being sued over fires, we won’t have to go through all this trouble again.
“Let’s be clear, this blackout is a flex,” wrote Andy Weir, author of The Martian, in a blistering Facebook post. “They have been waiting eagerly for a high fire risk day to pull this stunt. Now they have struck. They want everyone to know the following: ‘If you are going to sue us for fires, we will turn off your power any time there’s a fire risk (and that risk is determined solely by us).'”
We’ve reached out to PG&E about these allegations. We’re not holding our breath waiting to hear back. Certainly, such high-stakes blackmail would not be out of character for a criminal company — one that has already shown a callous disregard for public safety, and a Trump-like preference for profits at the expense of literally everything else.
Even if overpaid executives like Johnson genuinely have the best intentions all of a sudden, California has all the evidence it needs that for-profit companies and electric infrastructure don’t mix. It is past time for the world’s fifth largest economy to acquire the assets of this bankrupt mess, turn it into a nonprofit, and double down on funding the repairs that climate change will only make more necessary.