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California governor demands PG&E pay $100 to each customer affected by blackouts

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Utility company stands by outages in the face of withering public opinion and gubernatorial complaint

The dark silhouette of an Oakland building with tall spires, set against a twilight sky.
The Mormon Temple in Oakland, uncharacteristically dark during last week’s outages.
Photo by Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) battered public image hit a new low after intentionally knocking out power to millions of customers for up to four days last week. Now Gov. Gavin Newsom wants the utility company to pay for its sins.

On Monday, Newsom sent a letter to utility President Bill Johnson demanding the company monetarily compensate residents affected by the premeditated blackout. The California governor also asked California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer to begin investigating PG&E over the outages.

In his message to Johnson, Newsom complained of “the unacceptable scope and duration of this outage,” attributing it to “PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety.”

Although the monetary payments the governor suggests are small—rebates to the tune of $250 for businesses and $100 for residences—the results would reach upwards of millions of dollars in expenses for the bankrupt company, given that PG&E outages affected more than 700,000 households.

While Newsom initially called the blackouts a necessary decision given the risk of wildfire presented by weather conditions last week, the governor’s tone grew sharper as the crisis developed, accusing the utility company of neglecting safety measures and maintenance that could have avoided such problems.

In response, Johnson argued that increased risk and severity of wildfires in California prompted the power shutoffs. He defended the decision to pull the plug, even while apologizing to the public for the problems caused and for PR blunders—like sending executives to a lavish wine country party on the eve of the outages, a move the company president called “tone deaf.”

Beyond the outages, Newsom’s letter said that PG&E’s site crashed constantly in the days before and during the shutoff, which deprived many residents of critical information. He also said that the utility “struggled to implement basic protocols” such as notifying affected neighborhoods in time.

In a statement responding to the governor, Johnson emphasized that “there were no catastrophic wildfires” started during the outages and that CPUC approved the anti-wildfire measures that the company says it abided by for this action.

“We recognize this was a hardship for millions of people throughout Northern and Central California,” Johnson writes.

The reply, however, does not address the issue of compensatory payments. A separate statement issued the same day emphasizes the amount of work and resources the utility committed to restoring power and the severity of the weather conditions beforehand.

Also on Monday, the governor repeated his allegations about “astounding neglect and lack of preparation” in a letter to the CPUC, asking the regulatory agency to make a “comprehensive review” of PG&E’s decisions leading up to and during the outages.

Newsom argued that the utility should have to help customers set up backup power systems of their own in case of additional blackouts in the future.