Lights Out, Again: PG&E Narrows Scope of 3rd Round of Preemptive Shutoffs

Smoke rises from a hillside beneath PG&E transmission lines as Cal Fire crews battled the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Philip Pacheco/AFP-Getty Images)

Update, 7:40 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30: PG&E carried out its third preemptive power shutdown in a week Tuesday as the latest in a series of critical fire weather events descended on Northern California.

But the utility said in a series of statements late Tuesday and early Wednesday that the blackouts, designed to prevent electrical equipment from sparking wildfires, had been reduced in scope.

The utility had said that about 596,000 customers in 29 counties would have their power turned off beginning early Tuesday.

But Mark Quinlan, the PG&E director of wildfire operations serving as incident commander for the public safety power shutoffs, said in a briefing Tuesday evening the company had decided to cancel a planned outage for about 67,000 customers in Humboldt County.

Early Wednesday, the company said in a tweet that "favorable weather conditions" prompted it to cancel an outage planned for 30,000 customers in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

Those changes in the blackout plan meant about half a million customers – or about 1.2 million residents in PG&E's service area – were without power.

The latest round of deliberate outages began before dawn Tuesday in Trinity, Shasta, Butte, Tehama and Plumas counties in Northern California. Communities in three North Bay counties — Sonoma, Napa and Solano — were taken offline shortly afterward.

The situation in Marin County was not so straightforward. PG&E initially said that it would cut power to virtually all customers in the county around 11 p.m. Tuesday. But by Tuesday morning, that estimate had changed — first to 7 a.m., then to 8 a.m. But the outage didn't occur as the company had described.

At 11:30 a.m., Laine Hendricks, the county's public information officer, said the new round of blackouts appeared not to have begun and that PG&E was actually restoring power to customers who had been shut off during the weekend's vast outage.

That weekend outage covered about 120,000 Marin customers — nearly every home, business and public facility in the county. Hendricks said the utility had reconnected about 53,000 customers by midafternoon Tuesday.

"My latest communication from PG&E is that it (the shutoff time) still varies," Hendricks said. "I guess there's a number of factors at play. And if they don't have to cut off the power, they're trying not to. They're dealing with obviously a potential weather event. And they're also there monitoring the situation just north of us in Sonoma," mostly relating to the Kincade Fire's impact on power facilities.

"So, those various factors, which are still very fluid at this point, is why we don't have any certainty on a possible de-energization timeline," she said.

Later Tuesday, the Fairfax Police Department sent out a Nixle alert saying "PG&E states that Marin is currently outside the scope of the next general PSPS that begins today." The alert also said PG&E was experiencing problems with a substation in the county and that power could be shut off if the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County threatened transmission lines.

Asked about the Marin confusion, Quinlan, the PG&E's incident commander, said the uncertainty was due to "some operational related constraints" related to high-voltage transmission equipment in Sonoma County's Kincade Fire area and other parts of the North Bay.

Quinlan added that an "all clear" had been declared for the five Northern California counties where blackouts began early Tuesday. An all clear was expected for most of the rest of the blackout zone by 8 a.m. Wednesday. The one exception: a small pocket of about 1,000 PG&E customers in Kern County's Tehachapi range, where Santa Ana conditions were expected to continue through Thursday.

The weather event prompting the preventive shutoffs is a resumption of high, extremely dry winds that has prompted the National Weather Service to post a red flag warning for most of Northern California.

Sustained winds of 45 to 50 mph were recorded Tuesday afternoon and early evening in the Sonoma County hills, where more than 4,000 firefighters continue to battle the Kincade Fire. Even higher gusts — accompanied by humidity levels of 10% or lower — are  forecast for later Tuesday and early Wednesday before red flag fire conditions ease.

Cal Fire said the blaze, which started last Wednesday near a PG&E transmission tower in The Geysers geothermal area in northeastern Sonoma County, has burned 76,825 acres and is 30% contained.

Tuesday's round of power shutoffs began as PG&E continued the process of restoring power to more than 1 million customers who were blacked out preemptively during last weekend's siege of severe winds — or who lost power because of damage caused by gusts that topped 60 mph in many locations and hit 102 mph in The Geysers.

KQED's Kate Wolffe contributed to this report.

Update, 7:25 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28: PG&E says it has restored power to about 400,000 of the 970,000 customers who had their electricity shut off Saturday during the onset of dangerously windy, dry weather.

Mark Quinlan, the PG&E executive serving as incident commander for the public safety power shutoff, said during a media briefing Monday evening that crews were restoring power to the vast blacked-out area at a rate of 35,000 to 45,000 customers an hour.

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PG&E said that 100,000 customers who were not included in the preemptive shutdown also lost power during what amounted to a severe prolonged windstorm that began Saturday evening and continued through early Monday.

Quinlan said that as of 5 p.m. Monday, 630,000 account holders — including those who suffered unplanned outages — remained without power.

Next for the utility and its customers is yet another round of shutoffs as high winds returns to Northern California early Tuesday. But it appears the coming blackout, the third in just a week, will be more limited in scope than the weekend shutdown.

Quinlan said that the shutoffs beginning Tuesday will affect somewhere between 240,000 and 600,000 customers in 29 counties: Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.

He said shutoffs could begin in the North Bay by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and occur in East Bay and South Bay communities much later in the day or even early Wednesday.

Quinlan acknowledged the wide spread in the utility's projections and said that the lower estimate of customers affected, 240,000, represented the impact of the next blackout if only lower-voltage distribution lines are turned off.

But the impact could be much wider, Quinlan said, if PG&E is unable to restore power to two sets of high-voltage transmission lines in the northern part of the state: a pair of "very important, critical" 230-kilovolt transmission lines serving areas from Marin to Humboldt County and high-voltage lines carrying power from The Geysers geothermal power generating stations to North Bay communities.

The 230-kV lines were removed from service for the Saturday shutoff, Quinlan said, and were being inspected for storm damage Monday.

"We are optimistic our patrols are going to come back with no trouble, and if they do, we can re-energize" the lines, Quinlan said. "The contingency is that if they do come back with trouble found and need to remain out of service, they will impact the scope" of the coming shutoff.

Quinlan said that the status of the transmission lines in The Geysers was uncertain because of possible damage suffered during the Kincade Fire or because they remain inaccessible due to ongoing fire activity.

PG&E reported last week that one of its transmission lines suffered a problem at about the same time and place the Kincade blaze began last Wednesday night in The Geysers. The lines were still carrying power at the time, though a public safety power shutoff had been declared in the area and distribution lines had been shut down.

Update, 3:25 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28: PG&E says that as of 3 p.m. Monday it had restored electricity to about 300,000 customers of the 940,000-plus who were left in the dark by a public safety power shutoff that began Saturday.

The process of restoring power involves aerial inspections of the thousands of miles of distribution and transmission lines shut down just ahead of the onset of extreme winds across Northern California on Saturday night.

That inspection looks for damage to equipment, such as downed lines or poles, and instances where trees or tree limbs have been blown into power lines.

PG&E said Monday that in the aftermath of a voluntary blackout conducted from Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, it found 120 locations its equipment had suffered damage that could have sparked fires.

The PG&E blackouts — among the 10 conducted by the state's other major utilities this fire year — are designed to prevent power facilities from sparking wildfires.

PG&E is planning to shut off power again in as many as 32 counties on Tuesday as another round of high winds sets in.

Original post:

With a sweeping power outage still in place across 38 California counties, PG&E said Sunday that it's preparing for yet another preemptive blackout because of a forecast of extremely windy weather beginning Tuesday.

The company said that some of those who are currently without power may not have it restored until after an outage anticipated for Tuesday and Wednesday.

The utility shut down power to about 960,000 customers on Saturday evening as a dry cold front advanced south through the state and began a prolonged siege of extremely high winds. An additional 100,000 customers are in the dark due to wind-related outages, PG&E said at a media briefing Sunday evening.

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The current outage — formally called a public safety power shutoff and designed to prevent fires sparked by live electrical lines — is the largest preemptive blackout declared so far, affecting roughly 2.5 million people.

In the hours after the shutoff, winds raged through the Sonoma County hills and mountains, with the highest recorded gusts topping 90 mph. The fierce winds pushed the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County southward, prompting evacuation orders for 180,000 people.

Although winds eased somewhat during the day Sunday, gusts exceeding 70 mph were common in the area and complicated Cal Fire's effort to stop the fire from spreading south from the outskirts of Healdsburg and Windsor into Santa Rosa or jumping U.S. 101 and beginning a run to the Sonoma County coast.

PG&E started the restoration process earlier than anticipated in some areas, including the northern Sacramento Valley, northern Sierra and the North Coast, PG&E incident commander Mark Quinlan said during Sunday's briefing.

Crews will begin the process of inspecting lines and turning power back on for the remaining affected areas between 6 and 8 a.m. Monday, he said.

But even as that restoration effort proceeds, the company is preparing for the renewed onset of high winds Tuesday and Wednesday.

The potential Tuesday-Wednesday shutoffs will have a geographical footprint in the North Bay nearly identical to the weekend blackouts but will cover a reduced area in the East and South Bay, Quinlan said.

On Sunday, the company sent out a 48-hour notification to warn approximately 500,000 customers of potential shutoffs. However, this number is expected to change by Monday due to evolving weather conditions and transmission analysis, Quinlan said.

“We're in the process of determining where and who, because we understand how important that is to customers. We understand that they need to make plans, and we want to be as transparent as we can," Quinlan said. The company expects to have these details by Monday morning, he added.

PG&E spokesman Paul Doherty said some of the hundreds of thousands left in the dark by the blackout that began Saturday may not have power restored until after the Tuesday-Wednesday outage.

"While we will make every effort to restore power to as many customers as possible who are currently out, because this is such a dynamic situation with changing weather conditions, some customers who are currently without power ... may remain out through the next potential PSPS event," Doherty said.

He cautioned that customers who do have power restored after the weekend shutdown may have only a brief window before the lights go out again.

"For those customers who are able to have their power restored between events, we urge them to use that opportunity to charge their devices, their phones, any medical equipment and that sort of thing," he said.

News of the next potential shutoff came amid renewed criticism of the utility's preemptive outages.

Controversy over the public safety shutoffs has been fanned by a PG&E report that one of its power lines in northeastern Sonoma County experienced a problem just minutes before the Kincade Fire was reported Wednesday night and in the same area the blaze is believed to have started. Cal Fire is continuing to investigate what sparked the blaze.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat who was among those forced to evacuate as the Kincade Fire spread Saturday, on Sunday called PG&E's power shutoffs "a debacle."

"They lack the basic fundamentals to successfully execute a large and complex outage," McGuire said during an appearance on KQED-FM on Sunday. "I think we're in this situation now for three reasons: lack of investment and mismanagement by PG&E on their electrical system, the lack of supervision and enforcement by the (California) Public Utilities Commission, and because we're facing a new climate reality in this state that's caught up with Pacific Gas and Electric."

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has been an increasingly vocal critic of how PG&E is conducting the outages, told KQED on Sunday that the company's "decades ... of malfeasance and corporate greed, focused on shareholders and not on you and me and the taxpayers and their customers, cannot be solved overnight. I get people's frustration, I can assure you I am frustrated. ... But I also recognize my unique responsibility to fix this damn thing and do everything to hold PG&E and my own Public Utilities Commission to account to fix this in a way that this does not become the new normal."