Darbee acknowledges a 'year of challenge'By Dana Hull, Steve Johnson
Dubbing 2010 "a year of setbacks" for PG&E, CEO Peter Darbee on Thursday conceded that his company has misjudged its customers on multiple occasions, but insisted that its response to the San Bruno pipeline explosion shows it is learning.
"The lessons of SmartMeters and Prop. 16 is that we need to further enhance our understanding of the customer," Darbee said in an interview with the Mercury News. Over the past year, Pacific Gas & Electric has drawn sharp criticism for its dismissive response to concerns about its new electronic meters, and for its heavy-handed effort to block competition from municipal utilities with its failed June ballot measure.
"We took those lessons into our experience with San Bruno," he said. "The focus on the customer was right from the beginning. We had 150 PG&E volunteers in blue shirts, looking at the question 'How can we help?' "
Though he stopped short of apologizing for his company's tactics, Darbee's remarks about SmartMeters and Proposition 16 are among the most conciliatory he has made about two missteps that have eroded his company's public standing.
But they did not go far enough for some of the company's most fervent critics.
Frank Pitre, a Burlingame attorney whose firm represents some of the San Bruno plaintiffs who have sued PG&E over the Sept. 9 pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 35 homes, expressed outrage.
"I'm frankly appalled," he said. "Any time somebody pats themselves on the back in this kind of disaster, it tells me they're not thinking correctly. They should have had their focus on the customer 20 years ago."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, was also critical, saying PG&E should do more to help victims of the blast who are still recovering in a burn unit at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. Speier, who has visited the patients, said at least two of the four are struggling to get their insurance companies to cover their medical costs, and she said she thinks PG&E should step in and pay the expenses.
"There has been a blind eye to these patients," she said, urging Darbee and Chris Johns, president of the utility, to visit the hospital themselves. "These patients are suffering. What they are coping with is just beyond description."
But San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane praised PG&E for immediately offering financial assistance and agreeing to relocate the gas pipe that ruptured. "They have tried to respond to the situation as best they can," he said.
Darbee declined to comment on the potential causes of the San Bruno explosion, noting that the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating.
The backlash against SmartMeters began with Central Valley customers who worried that the meters caused a spike in their electric bills. An independent investigation found the meters to be 99 percent accurate. Since then, a small but vocal number of consumers in Marin, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties and elsewhere have been speaking out about possible health effects. Some are convinced the meters are making them ill, while others fear they will increase the likelihood of brain cancer.
Darbee stressed that a SmartMeter emits a fraction of the radiation of a cell phone but said PG&E was looking for some way to address those concerns.
"The (radio frequency) emissions from one of our meters is less than one-ten-thousandth of what you get from a cell phone," said Darbee, whose background is in telecommunications. "But there are people that have been concerned throughout their life about RF exposure, people who live their lives consumed with concerns about RF, and so in light of that, we're asking ourselves, 'Is there a way to find a compromise solution that they can live with and we can live with?' "
He declined to elaborate on what that might be.
"It's great news," said David Ashuckian, deputy director of the division of ratepayer advocates at the California Public Utilities Commission. "They've finally started to wake up and be more responsive to their customers."
Darbee, 57, joined PG&E as finance chief in 1999 and was elevated to president and CEO in January 2005, after pulling the company out of bankruptcy. Since then he has sought to make PG&E "the leading utility in the United States" and has won national acclaim for his commitment to climate change legislation.
Travis Miller, a utility analyst with the financial research firm Morningstar, gave PG&E high marks for delivering earnings growth. "The management team there has been good for shareholders," he said.
But shareholders are not customers, and many customers have been highly critical of the utility. Its reputation was further frayed earlier this month when Bill Devereaux, the PG&E executive in charge of SmartMeters, resigned after being caught using the alias "Ralph" to try to spy on anti-SmartMeter activists online.
Copyright ©2010 San Jose Mercury News. Published 11/18/2010.