The Reporter (Vacaville)
PG&E again vows to do better
The nation’s largest utility has long vowed to change its reckless ways, but year after year there’s more death and destruction from Northern California wildfires sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric’s equipment.
CEO Patricia “Patti” Poppe, who took over in January as the company’s fifth leader in less than three years, has pledged to shareholders that the future will get “easier” and “brighter.” That vow will be put to the test as California sinks deeper into drought and fire danger increases.
It’s been a year since the utility emerged from one of the most complex bankruptcy cases in U.S. history, an act driven by a succession of harrowing wildfires ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid. The bankruptcy, PG&E’s second in less than 20 years, was billed as an opportunity to finally hit the reset button for a utility that provides power to 16 million people — more than the population of all but a handful of states.
So far, however, it has looked more like a reminder of problems that have resulted in tragedy over the past six years, including a 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people and largely destroyed the town of
Paradise, about 145 miles (233 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco. It was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century.
Already a twice-convicted felon, PG&E has been charged with another round of fire-related crimes that it denies committing. The utility also has been rebuked by California regulators and a federal judge overseeing its criminal probation for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.
Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s chief risk officer, acknowledged the utility hasn’t lived up to expectations in the past but said, “I am very encouraged with new leadership, (a) new playbook, rigor and discipline that we are on the right track. We know we can do better and we will do better.”
He listed a wide range of improvements that include using more advanced technology to avoid setting wildfires and help detect them quicker.
In the meantime, most of the roughly 70,000 victims who have filed claims for devastation caused by PG&E’s past misdeeds still are awaiting payment from a $13.5 billion trust created during the bankruptcy. The trust, which is run independently of PG&E, is facing a nearly $2 billion shortfall because half its funding came in company stock, despite critics saying it was foolhardy to hold a stake in a utility with such a shoddy record.
Those shares have been sagging in a soaring stock market. A windfall could still come if PG&E’s shares rebound as several analysts have projected, but the trust would find itself in an even deeper hole if the stock should fall even further.
There are legitimate worries about the shares plunging if the utility sparks another deadly wildfire during the next four months, with most of PG&E’s sprawling service territory mired in extreme drought and climate change contributing to worsening fire conditions in the U.S. West.
“Of course, I am nervous. My biggest fear is what is
going to happen to the stock,” said John Trotter, head of the victims’ trust, which owns nearly one in every four PG&E shares — far more than any other investor.
Trotter, a retired federal judge who is being paid $1,500 per hour as the trustee, has other headaches, too. He and over 300 workers have come under heavy criticism for the slow pace of payments to victims who lost family, homes and other property anywhere from nearly three to six years ago.