The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

April 11, 2011
PG&E president promises a safer, customer-friendly company

Chris Johns, president of PG&E, has been on what he describes as a "listening tour" after what he calls the company's most challenging year ever.

That tour brought him this afternoon to The Bee's editorial board, where he vowed that the giant utility will operate safely, efficiently and with customers always in mind.

Last year, customers rebelled against the installation of "smart meters." Johns acknowledged that the company did not do a great job of educating homeowners and laying the groundwork, but also said PG&E was the victim of going first in California and timing with a rate increase and hot temperatures that convinced many customers that the meters were responsible for high bills.

The conversion is 95 percent complete in the Sacramento region and about 75 percent complete in PG&E's entire service area. Complaints are down, Johns said.

Then in June, Proposition 16, financed by PG&E, went down at the polls. It would have made it much more difficult for new public utilities to form and existing ones to expand - thus limiting competition. The Bee, along with most newspaper editorial boards, roundly criticized the ballot measure as a power grab.

Johns said he has heard loud and clear from residents and customers that PG&E shouldn't be in the business of putting initiatives on the ballot. He said he doesn't think it will happen again.

Asked whether it was bad policy or bad timing, or whether the company would sponsor a ballot measure ever again, he replied, "I'll leave it at that."

And then last September, a PG&E gas line ruptured and exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people, destroying 38 homes and leading to one troubling revelation after another but testing and maintenance of the natural gas infrastructure.

Johns said everything connected with the gas lines is now under a microscope and he accepts that. Saying it would be even more tragic if PG&E did not do everything possible to prevent a similar explosion, he promised that the company will emerge from all the scrutiny with the best-run natural gas system in the country.

More recently, PG&E has been dealing with its collateral damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled a nuclear power plant. The utility is having to prove to regulators, lawmakers and residents that its two reactors at Diablo Canyon are safe from natural disaster.

In advance of a town hall meeting Wednesday, the company announced today that it is asking federal regulators to delay re-licensing the plant until extensive seismic studies are complete, probably by the end of 2015. The plant, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Pacific midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is near two earthquake faults -- and within 50 miles of some 400,000 Californians.

James Becker, the site vice president at Diablo Canyon, said there are some important differences that make it much safer. The cooling system can work without any power at all, and if the grid goes down, there are six backup diesel generators with enough fuel on site to last seven days, he said.

And since 2009, about 800 spent fuel rods have been placed in more secure dry cask storage, leaving about 2,000 in pools, Becker said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who recently toured Diablo Canyon, urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today to require that transition to dry cask storage happen quicker at nuclear power plants across the country.


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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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