California utilities fined $22M over 2020 power shutoffs

California utilities will be fined more than $22 million for the "poor execution" of widespread power shutoffs two years ago that were designed to prevent devastating wildfires, the state's Public Utilities Commission announced Wednesday.

The regulators announced $12 million in fines against Pacific Gas & Electric, $10 million against Southern California Edison and $24,000 against San Diego Gas & Electric. The companies, along with the PacifiCorp power company, also were ordered to take corrective action to comply with public safety and notification requirements, the agency said in a statement.

All three companies were criticized for their chaotic and unprepared handling of public safety power shutoffs in October 2019 that were designed to deactivate power lines during times of expected dry, hot and windy weather to prevent downed or fouled equipment from sparking wildfires.

Regulators blasted PG&E for a botched shutoff that left nearly 2 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California without power. People couldn’t get information as websites and call centers crashed and local officials didn’t know what to tell panicked customers.

Last year, the PUC penalized Pacific Gas & Electric $106 million for violating guidelines during fall 2019 power shutoffs.

Later shutoffs went more smoothly, including more than two dozen around the state in 2020. But Wednesday's PUC announcement said the agency still found multiple violations of PUC shutoff guidelines.

Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, failed to notify some customers of anticipated shutoffs in a timely fashion or, in some areas, reported incorrect times when power was restored, regulators said.

The utilities have 30 days to pay the fines or request a hearing.

Southern California Edison said the PUC’s administrative enforcement order was "counter-productive" and called the fines excessive and unnecessary.

MORE: PG&E pleads not guilty in deadly 2020 Zogg wildfire in Northern California

The utility said the PUC order focuses on the early stages of its power shutoff program when rules were still evolving and overlooks the "tremendous progress" the company has made in improving the process to minimize customer impact.

Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric didn't immediately comment on the PUC's action for this story.

Power lines have been blamed for about half of the most destructive wildfires in state history, according to the PUC, including 2018′s Camp Fire in Northern California’s Butte County that killed 85.

The risk of wildfire is expected to worsen as climate change has made California much drier and more flammable.