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PG&E CEO predicts five more years of power shutoffs

Audrey Conklin

Pacific Gas and Electric Company expects to use power shutoffs to prevent wildfires for at least five more years, CEO Bill Johnson told senators during a Thursday hearing in Washington.

Johnson told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources he expects the power shutoffs to become more targeted and less widespread over time. The Northern California utility shut off power for millions of people during dangerous fire weather events in October and November.

The hearing came a day after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali approved two settlements from PG&E worth $24.5 billion, including $13.5 billion for Bay Area wildfire victims and $11 billion for insurers.

The shutoffs cost customers $10 billion, Dr. Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment testified. Johnson acknowledged that they put vulnerable customers in danger but said they achieved the goal of not starting a deadly wildfire.

"It will take us probably five years to get to the point where we can largely eliminate this tool," Johnson said of power shutoffs.

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"I think over the next couple years, you will see a progression of shorter, fewer [shutoffs], but the climate change and the weather change is dramatic enough that I don't think we will see the end of it for some period of time," he added.

Judge Montali's decision to approve PG&E settlements will likely help PG&E get out of bankruptcy before June 30, at which point the company could become eligible to receive a federal wildfire fund.

"We have taken the most important step, which is to resolve, to settle, to make amends to the fire victims," Johnson told West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who asked if PG&E would survive.

The PG&E CEO testified that the utility has secured financing for when it exits bankruptcy and that the court will decide who the new owner will be. Some California officials are pushing for PG&E to become publicly-owned rather than investor-owned.

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"Nothing in the bankruptcy will be put to the consumer," Johnson said. "All the settlements will be paid by the shareholder. There [are] some cost increases that will come to the consumers that were planned before the bankruptcy was declared. And actually, the consumer will see fewer increases after the bankruptcy than they would have on the pre-bankruptcy plan."

"It's going to be better for the consumers, and they're not going to pay for anything related to the bankruptcy, but some of the upgrades of the system and other things [will be] to the benefit of the customers, and they will have to contribute to that."

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