Why Californians are furious at the utility company PG&E

(CNN) — People are angry after California’s largest power utility intentionally cut off electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers in an attempt to avoid sparking wildfires.

The company has been criticized in recent years for the role its equipment played in a series of catastrophic blazes across the state — including the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history.

The outages, which Pacific Gas & Electric said are expected to last several days, have inconvenienced residents and hurt businesses. Those who depend on electricity for medical reasons are now responsible for self-evacuating.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety,” said Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E’s electric operations. “We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision because the safety of our customers and communities must come first.”

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

PG&E said on Wednesday that its Oroville office had been egged. California Highway Patrol reported that someone had fired a bullet into a PG&E vehicle on Tuesday night.

In a plea to the public, the wife of a PG&E worker took to Facebook and urged people to consider that their outrage might be misplaced.

“Whether you agree with the power outage or not, please remember that the guys you see out in the blue trucks working in the hard hats are not the people to lash out at,” photographer Katie Barbier wrote in a post that was widely shared.

“These men and women have families that they are trying to provide for (who’s power is most likely also affected). They are simply employees and have no say in any decision making so shouting profanities or resorting to violence towards PG&E workers will never do any good but it would instead hurt someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife.”

Regardless of how people are choosing to vent their anger, for many Californians, this week’s power outages are just the latest 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 2018 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 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,” 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

PG&E has said its power cuts are intended to prevent wildfires from happening at a time when weather conditions pose high risks.

But some customers, as well as state and local authorities, are frustrated that the company inconveniences customers and hurts 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.”

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