'No More Shutoffs at This Time': PG&E Scrambles to Restore Power Amid Mounting Criticism

A sign calling for PG&E to turn the power back on is seen on the side of the road during a statewide blackout in Calistoga on Oct. 10, 2019. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Updated: Friday, Oct. 11, 12 p.m.

After cutting power to large swaths of Northern California this week, PG&E said Thursday it would begin inspections of transmission lines in an effort to restore power to hundreds of thousands of customers as weather conditions improved.

On Friday morning, the utility reported that power had been restored to nearly 493,000 customers — about two-thirds of those impacted by the shutoff — including full restoration in Humboldt, Siskiyou and Trinity counties. About 245,000 customers remained without power, she said.

In the Bay Area, power had been restored to nearly 84% of customers who lost it, according to PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarqissian. More than 42,000 customers, primarily in Napa and Sonoma counties, were still without power.

A customer denotes any household, business or other entity that gets power from PG&E, so the actual number of people who have been impacted by the shutoffs is actually far greater than the number of customers listed. For instance, one customer could represent a household of four people.

The shutoffs, which began early Wednesday and continued Thursday, were aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires that could be sparked by electrical equipment, amid high winds and dry conditions.

At a press conference Thursday evening, Gov. Gavin Newsom lambasted PG&E, saying the decision to cut power was the result of the utility not upgrading its infrastructure.

"What's happened is unacceptable," Newsom said. "It's happened because of neglect. It's happened because of decisions that were deferred, delayed or not made by the largest investor-owned utility in the state of California, one of the largest in the nation."

In the future, Newsom said, the state and its residents shouldn't have to make a "false choice" between public safety and hardship.

"This can't be, respectfully, the new normal," he said.

Later Thursday evening, Bill Johnson, PG&E’s new president and CEO, spoke at a separate news conference and apologized to customers.

"This is not how we want to serve you, not how we want to run our business," he said.

But Johnson, in response to Newsom's earlier comments, maintained that the utility chose safety over hardship.

"I do apologize for the hardship this has caused, and I think we made the right call on safety," he said.

Johnson said the company will likely have to make a decision on power shutoffs in the future, and acknowledged that it could have done better communicating with customers.

"We were not adequately prepared to support the operational event," Johnson said.

During the shutoffs, the company's website crashed, maps of affected areas were inconsistent or incorrect and call centers were overloaded.

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PG&E said it is now working to quickly restore power across its vast service area, a process that entails inspection of 2,400 miles of transmission lines and 24,000 miles of distribution lines. The utility has 6,300 field personnel and 44 helicopters doing this work, it said, and had already identified multiple instances of damage.

PG&E said inspections will occur in counties that have been declared "all clear."

However, parts of the Sierra foothills, including the town of Paradise and some areas of Kern County, will remain without power, likely through Thursday night, until the threat of high winds subsides, company officials said.

Power Shutoffs Amid High Winds

The utility said about 234,000 customers may have been impacted by the second phase of the shutoffs Wednesday, but did not give a precise number for how many had actually lost power. About 513,000 customers had their electricity cut in the first phase.

Overall, some 1.8 million to 2.4 million people may have been impacted by the cuts, said Stanford University climate and energy expert Michael Wara on Wednesday. Some of those affected included more than 130,000 students across the state, whose schools shuttered for at least one day this week, and people with health conditions who rely on electricity to power medical devices at home.

During this week's power shutoffs, residents from Half Moon Bay to the Oakland Hills, Santa Cruz to Sonoma, pulled out their rechargeable batteries, flashlights and generators for the shutoffs, which PG&E has said could last up to five days.

Some people on social media expressed outrage over the shutoffs while others settled in for the blackout.

A red flag warning remained in effect for the North Bay hills and valleys, and the East Bay hills through 5 p.m. Thursday. In the Santa Cruz mountains, the red flag warning remained in effect through 12 p.m. The National Weather Service said wind gusts peaked early Thursday morning and decreased later in the day.

Winds remained gusty in the North and East Bay Hills through Thursday afternoon.

Lawmakers Question PG&E's Shutoff Plan

On Tuesday afternoon — two years to the day after the deadly North Bay firestorm erupted — PG&E announced its plans to make large cuts across its service area due to conditions similar to those that spawned the 2017 fires.

Some state and Bay Area officials said they were frustrated with the shutoffs — echoing complaints from PG&E customers on social media.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, sent a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission late Wednesday, calling on the commission to more aggressively regulate the shutoffs and conduct post-event reviews.

"Many questions remain unanswered as the state reels with the consequences of this decision by PG&E. Chief among them is why is PG&E alone in making this decision?" Hill wrote.

CPUC President Marybel Batjer began a commission meeting Thursday morning stating her concerns with the process.

"The situation frankly has been unacceptable," Batjer said. "The impacts to individual communities, to individual people, to the commerce of our state, to the safety of our people has been less than exemplary, and we have to, this cannot be the new normal."

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, said he expects lawmakers will discuss steps to make sure the decision to power down doesn't come unilaterally from PG&E in the future.

"Powering down can be very helpful in avoiding wildfires. This isn't about any and all blackouts. But this level of a blackout should not be a regular occurrence, and I'm concerned that PG&E will make it a regular occurrence," Wiener said.

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Small Fires Break Out in Bay Area

A fire reported in the East Bay town of Moraga at about 1 a.m. threatened 140 buildings early Thursday morning in an area where power had been cut. The fire burned 40 acres and is 95% contained, according to Cal Fire.

A small brush fire broke out Thursday morning on the Brisbane side of San Bruno Mountain in San Mateo County. It was 60% contained on Thursday afternoon, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. PG&E did not cut power to that area.

Why Are the Shutoffs So Widespread?

Wara, who directs the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said the shutoffs were widespread for two reasons: First, the weather. It’s the first time since the 2017 North Bay fires that we've had such a widespread offshore wind event, he said.

The other reason is infrastructure. “The infrastructure we have was not built with fire risk in mind," said Wara. "It was built to — especially in the rural parts and suburban parts of California that are most at risk today — serve customers cost effectively and to keep power rates low.”

“So you'll have a power line that will serve one valley and then go up and over a ridge to serve the next valley. And that means that if you have to turn that light off, you could black out both valleys in addition to the ridge top — even though the risk is only on the ridge top,” he said.

Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said Californians can expect more widespread power shutoffs like these in similar weather conditions as the utility continues to upgrade its infrastructure.

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