Utility Giant PG&E Voluntarily Shuts Off Power, Could Impact 800,000 Calif. Customers

Oct 9, 2019
Originally published on October 9, 2019 7:05 pm

Updated 6:34 p.m. ET

Pacific Gas & Electric began cutting off power to nearly 800,000 customers across large swaths of Northern and Central California on Wednesday morning, in a planned outage that it says is necessary to avoid the risk of fire.

PG&E gave residents in 34 counties advance warnings about the power cut, which it says would "proactively" reduce the dangerous effects of a potential "widespread, severe wind event" forecast for Wednesday.

The utility giant's transmission lines have been linked to wildfires that have devastated communities in California. It filed for bankruptcy protection in January, and it has been roundly criticized for mismanagement and safety failures.

As of Wednesday morning, approximately 513,000 customers in Northern and Central California were without power in the initial phase of PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutoff. A planned second phase of the power shutdown originally scheduled for noon Wednesday has been pushed back to later this afternoon. The second phase will affect about 234,000 customers in large sections of the region east and south of San Francisco.

A potential third shutdown phase is being considered, according to PG&E. That plan could affect an additional 42,000 customers.

"The decision to turn off power was based on forecasts of dry, hot and windy weather including potential fire risk," PG&E said in a statement about the outage.

"Based on the latest weather forecasts and models, PG&E anticipates that this weather event will last through midday Thursday, with peak winds forecast from Wednesday morning through Thursday morning and reaching 60 to 70 mph at higher elevations."

A map shows potential power outages by PG&E on Wednesday. The utility says residents should type their street address into its website for detailed information about the tens of thousands of planned outages.
Google Maps / Screenshot by NPR

Member station KQED reports the utility's shut-off is part of "PG&E's state-mandated wildfire mitigation plan, which aims to cut down on the ignition of wildfires during high-risk periods."

KQED also reports while Bay Area Rapid Transit System does not expect any service disruptions during the outage, a number of schools across the region will be closed Wednesday.

Some of those closures include all classes at University of California, Berkeley, and Mills College in Oakland and all schools in the San Leandro Unified and Alum Rock Union school districts.

California is at the peak of its wildfire season. And the threat of strong wind gusts, paired with hot, dry weather raises the potential of trees being blown into power lines and sparking a fire.

PG&E is taking the aggressive step as it hopes to avoid a devastating fire event like 2018's deadly Camp Fire in Butte County, which claimed the lives of as many as 86 people and torched 14,000 homes and businesses. Another fire in California's wine country in 2017 killed 22 people and destroyed more than 36,000 acres.

Last month, PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion to resolve insurance claims from those two fires. However, earlier this year, state fire investigators determined that a private electrical system, not PG&E, was responsible for the wine region blaze.

The power shut-off could last up to five days or more in some areas, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, citing the Napa County Office of Emergency Services. The Chronicle also reports that the outages are expected to "hit parts of all Bay Area counties except San Francisco."

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service warned residents that a red flag warning was in effect for the North and East Bay Hills and Valleys as well as the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The NWS predicted a "very dry airmass will sweep across the region," and minimum humidity values are expected to plummet and remain low.

Armando Espinoza delivers paper products to a cafe in downtown Sonoma, Calif., where power is turned off, on Wednesday. Pacific Gas & Electric has cut power to more than half a million customers in Northern California hoping to prevent wildfires during dry, windy weather throughout the region.
Noah Berger / AP

"The combination of strong and gusty offshore winds, very low humidity, and dry fuels will create critical fire weather conditions today through Thursday," according to the latest alert by the NWS in San Francisco.

As of late morning local time, many residents in the affected areas took to social media to express their outage outrage as they saw little signs the dangerous wind gusts had materialized.

One Twitter user asked, "what wind? This is a 4 mph breeze in the foothills near Sacramento" and attached a panoramic video of the chaparral landscape and a lilac-colored plant barely dancing in the wind.

Eric Shackelford of ABC affiliate KGO-TV in the San Francisco area, tweeted a video from an intersection that lost power in Napa along Highway 29 and 221. In the foreground, law enforcement officials are seen monitoring traffic. Later, the video zooms in on a hot air balloon wafting in the background.

"So... This is a perfect snapshot of the #PGEpowershutdown and #poweroutage so far," Shackelford said. "Lots of questions about lack of winds this morning."

Others took the incident in stride, like Aparna Venmuri, who tweeted: "Dinner cooked, dishes done, car charged — #poweroutage scare is whipping discipline into my routine."

PG&E announced Monday that its meteorological and operations teams were monitoring the forecasts and "considering proactively turning off power for safety." By Tuesday evening, it confirmed the shut-off would proceed.

PG&E and state officials urged customers to plan ahead for refrigerating food and some medications, to find ways to power phones and other electronic devices, and to restock emergency kit supplies.

As people grapple with how to adapt to life without reliable electricity, the Marin County Sheriff's office tweeted tips on how to open a garage door if it doesn't have an emergency battery.

"We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public's patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire," said Michael Lewis, PG&E's senior vice president of electric operations, in a statement.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.