PG&E Restores Power to All Bay Area Customers Amid Growing Criticism of Shutoffs

A PG&E truck drives through Sausalito on Oct. 10, 2019.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Updated Sunday at 10:00 a.m.

PG&E crews restored power to the entire Bay Area on Saturday afternoon, three days after electricity was cut — in an unprecedented and controversial move by utility officials — in large parts of Northern and Central California due to weather conditions that could potentially spark wildfires.

A total of approximately 738,000 PG&E customers lost electricity in  the shutoffs from counties near the Oregon border to Kern County in the Central Valley.

PG&E said late Thursday that the weather had improved enough for crews to begin safety inspections and restoration work in the 35 counties where customers had their electricity cut — except for Kern County in the Central Valley at the time.

The utility has identified 23 instances of weather-related damage to its system in the shutoff areas. PG&E didn’t specify what those damages were but said it was making repairs.

In previous shutoffs, such weather-related damage included wind knocking down power lines, and trees or vegetation tangled in the lines, said PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith.

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New PG&E safety patrols and inspections were taking place in the state’s upper reaches in Butte, Plumas and Yuba counties. In some areas, crews would have to do their work by vehicle or helicopter — the quickest way — or on foot, Smith said.

When asked why it was taking longer to restore power in counties like Napa and Sonoma, Smith said, "A lot of it really depends upon the geography of the area."

He added, "Some areas of the county that may be a little bit more remote or difficult to access, sometimes there are challenges ... in being able to make the necessary inspections" to complete the restoration.

Most customers could expect power to come back within 48 hours after the weather event has passed through the area, Smith said.

PG&E power lines in Oakland during an unprecedented power cut by the utility to a large swaths of Northern and Central California on Oct. 1, 2019.
PG&E power lines in Oakland during an unprecedented power cut by the utility to a large swaths of Northern and Central California on Oct. 1, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

The shutoffs, which began early Wednesday and continued Thursday, were aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires that could be ignited by electrical equipment, amid red flag conditions. As the outages began, lawmakers and residents expressed frustration over the rollout and the widespread nature of the cuts.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday evening that the decision to turn off power was due to the utility's inability to modernize 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, Bill Johnson, PG&E’s new president and CEO, apologized to customers: "This is not how we want to serve you, not how we want to run our business.”

Johnson said the utility did choose safety over hardship: "I do apologize for the hardship this has caused, and I think we made the right call on safety."

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

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

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

Melissa Valle, a Sonoma County spokeswoman, said PG&E informed local officials that nearly all residents should have their power turned back on by late Friday. She said the county is sending residents a survey to see how the shutoffs impacted them — even if they didn't lose electricity.

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.

A man dependent on oxygen died about 12 minutes after PG&E shut down power early Wednesday in the Northern California community of Pollock Pines, the Associated Press reported. El Dorado County Fire Chief Lloyd Ogan said the man's oxygen equipment required power but could not say whether the shutoff was related to his death.

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