LOS ANGELES — Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced the departure of its chief executive Sunday as it remained besieged by a financial crisis related to California’s historic wildfires.
PG&E said the company had initiated a search to replace the top official, Geisha Williams, who had led the utility since 2017. It said John Simon, the company’s general counsel, would serve as interim chief executive during the search.
“While we are making progress as a company in safety and other areas, the board recognizes the tremendous challenges PG&E continues to face,” said Richard C. Kelly, PG&E’s chairman.
PG&E, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, faces an estimated $30 billion exposure to liability for damages from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires that killed scores in Northern California. The sum would exceed its insurance and assets, raising concern in the state capital about the utility’s future.
The billions in potential costs have prompted a series of downgrades in PG&E’s ratings, including decisions last week by Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the utility’s bonds to junk.
The “action is driven entirely by the further weakening of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s credit quality,” Moody’s stated in its decision.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said that responding to the utility and wildfire issues are among his top priorities after taking office last week.
Fire investigators determined that PG&E’s equipment was responsible for at least 18 of 21 major fires in 2017 as well as fires in 2018. Some of the fires have been attributed to power lines’ coming into contact with trees, which critics have said is a result of the utility’s failure to trim the trees.
“The question is open as to what PG&E’s plans are, whether they plan to file for bankruptcy or restructure on their own,” said Senator Jerry Hill, a San Francisco Democrat who heads the State Senate’s energy subcommittee on gas, electric and transportation safety. “The decision is certainly up to PG&E.”
Mr. Hill said the company needed to take steps to improve its operations as state and federal investigations have highlighted troubles with its safety culture. He said the departure of Ms. Williams was long overdue.
“It certainly good news to hear,” Mr. Hill said. “It’s late in coming.”