California residents face up to 10 years of widespread, precautionary forced power shut-offs until Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., the bankrupt utility giant, will be able to prevent its power transmission lines from sparking fires, the company's top official said.
The sobering projection came from company Chief Executive William D. Johnson at an emergency meeting Friday of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco.
While the need for widespread shutdowns should lessen every year, Johnson told commissioners, "I think this is probably a 10-year timeline to get to a point where it's really ratcheted down significantly."
Between June and early October, PG&E carried out four power shut-offs. The largest -- and most criticized -- was from Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, affecting 738,000 customers in 35 counties radiating out from the Sacramento area.
Food spoiled, traffic signals died, cellphones faded out. Schools and businesses came to a standstill and frustrations grew into concerns over safety as hospitals switched to emergency generators.
"What we saw play out by PG&E last week cannot be repeated," commission President Marybel Batjer said Friday, according to prepared remarks. "The loss of power endangers lives ... and imposes additional burdens on our most vulnerable populations."
Batjer noted also that "PG&E was not fully prepared to manage such a large-scale power shut-off."
During the planned outage, the utility's website crashed and customers tried futilely to reach the utility by any means for information.
The purpose of Friday's meeting, said Batjer, was to ensure that the state's utilities "are better prepared -- and that their customers are better served -- when our state faces the next wildfire threat and, if warranted, another power shut-off incident."
At the meeting and in a Friday letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Johnson acknowledged the inadequacies of PG&E's actions, while defending the purpose behind them. He also emphasized that the decision to turn power off was made in consultation with the National Weather Service and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.