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Why Were There So Many Power Outages Last Weekend?

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Workers clear a tree that fell onto a home
Workers clear a tree that fell onto a home during heavy wind and rain on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in San Jose, California. (Noah Berger/AP Photo)

View the full episode transcript.

A huge storm system hit the Bay Area this past weekend, leaving many across the 9 counties without power. At its peak, an estimated 1.5 million customers were without electricity statewide, marking the third-largest single-day outage in PG&E’s history. 

KQED’s Dan Brekke tells us why this storm was so bad, what about our infrastructure is lacking, and how we can be better prepared for more storms like this one going forward.

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Alan Montecillo: Hi, I’m Alan Montecillo, in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. And welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. Bay Area residents are picking up the pieces after a weekend full of rain and very strong winds. At least three people died in Northern California as a result of the storms, and more than a million people lost power. Some people, like Ashley in South San Francisco, haven’t had power for days.

Ashley: Our power has been out for the past 48 hours, to the point where I’m glad that my grandma is in the hospital so that she wouldn’t be in a cold, dark house.

Alan Montecillo: Others, like Eric near Point Reyes, are lucky to be alive.

Eric: We were sitting in the living room and heard the trees wailing around, and suddenly it just started to get really intense. Looked out the window and watched the 60 foot cypress tree fall onto our house. Everybody screaming. Everybody yelling. I mean, we were so lucky. Another couple feeding a different direction and we’d be having a very different conversation.

Alan Montecillo: Today. I talked with KQED s Dan Brekke about what made this storm so strong, and what we can do to prevent power outages of this scale in the future. How bad were the storms this past weekend?

Dan Brekke: So what we saw Saturday evening and all day Sunday was a very special kind of storm. It built up very quickly and moved through relatively rapidly compared to the forecasts. This storm underperformed in terms of the rain it dropped, but the winds were something else because this was such a rapidly developing storm and became so strong so quickly.

Dan Brekke: It was very, very windy. And so we saw winds that you might see once or twice a generation. There were a couple spots in Marin County, for instance. One was recorded with a 102 mile an hour wind gust. Another close by had 99 miles an hour. That was a really spectacular instance of Pacific storms rolling into California.

Alan Montecillo: So rain wasn’t as bad as we feared, at least in the Bay area, but winds were super strong. How much of that has to do with climate change?

Dan Brekke: You know, it’s really hard to say about any particular storm, what the specific contribution of global warming or climate change is. There is a scientific consensus that changing climatic conditions are making severe storms of this nature more likely. But this was a really remarkable storm. I mean, I haven’t used the term yet, but it’s what’s called a bomb cyclone.

Dan Brekke: That’s a term that Norwegian meteorologists came up with during World War two to describe a rapidly developing low pressure center, a storm that seemingly comes out of nowhere and can have really high winds and other severe effects. And that’s what we had off the coast here. A very rapidly developing storm that is very unusual and according to the National Weather Service, was the strongest storm we’ve had off the California coast in 15 years.

Alan Montecillo: What kind of damage did these winds cause? Like, what is the range of things that you’ve seen or that that we’ve, we’ve heard reported so far?

Dan Brekke: Well, the number one thing is lots of trees down. You know, there’s no precise count, but it’s safe to say thousands of trees went down. So what happens when a tree falls? I mean, it may block a road. It may fall on a car and injure somebody, or worse, it may fall on a house and cause major damage. It may take down power lines. There was some flooding that went along with the storm, even though, as I said, in most places, the rain was not as much as forecast.

Dan Brekke: But since the soil here is so saturated, all the water that was falling from the sky wound up as runoff and going into creeks and rivers, which which rose very quickly and caused some some flooding. And when you hear about power lines down, well, you know, it’s one thing when it happens in your neighborhood. But this was happening all across Northern California and Central California over most of PG and E’s 70,000 square mile service territory. So this was the really big impact from this storm.

Alan Montecillo: What did that damage look like in the Bay area? Like what parts of our region were hit the hardest?

Dan Brekke: It looks like there were, two main zones of of damage. If you judge by power outages, one was in the South Bay and the peninsula. San Mateo County in Santa Clara County had lots of trees down, lots of wires down, and lots of people in the dark because they lost their power. And then the other place was the North Bay. Mostly Sonoma County, but, also Marin and Napa County had unusual numbers of, people without power.

Dan Brekke: But, you know, once I say that, I mean, I’m thinking, you know, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the number of customers, PGA customers who went without power in places like Alameda County, in Contra Costa County, you know, 20, 30, 40,000 people out at one time on Sunday night. So it was pretty widely distributed. But those were the two places that really stood out North and South Bay.

Alan Montecillo: At its peak. How many people in the Bay area lost power?

Dan Brekke: You know, the largest number I saw at one time was close to half a million customers. But, you know, that was just a snapshot in time. And PGE is actually still counting up the numbers. You know, I talked to PGA spokesperson Jeff Smith, who’s based in the Central Valley.

Jeff Smith: You know, we’re working really, really hard to get as many customers restored as quickly as possible.

Dan Brekke: He gave me some numbers at midday on Monday, and he was saying that 900,000 customers have been restored, which is a huge number, and 400,000 across the state were still out. And so I added those numbers together and asked him, so we’re talking 1.3 million. And he said, yes, that’s right. But what does customer mean? Well, customers are mostly households. When you look at a number like 1.3 million customers out, that means maybe close to 4 million people were in the dark at some point.

Dan Brekke: And in the Bay area, at least a million people working these numbers a little further, about one inch for PG and E customers throughout the state. And maybe 1 in 10 Californians suffered a power outage sometime during that storm through midday on Monday. And then I asked, so where does this rank and in PGA history? And he had an interesting answer.

Jeff Smith: Right now it is the third biggest single storm in PGA history.

Dan Brekke: Now that goes back to the early 20th century more than 100 years ago. I think PGA e probably is at the point where they’ve reconnected most of the people who were easy to connect. And Smith said, you know, when you’re going out to restore power, sometimes you can restring a line or, you know, you get a tree out of the way and restore the line and you’ll reconnect 2000 people at once. But he said, a lot of places, you know, that are more remote. Doing the same thing may only reconnect two customers.

Jeff Smith: And so there’s just a lot of outages. And sometimes there are there are extensive repairs that take multiple hours. And you only bring back a handful of customers, once that returns May.

Alan Montecillo: Coming up. What we know and don’t know about why there were so many power outages across the Bay area. Stay with us.

Alan Montecillo: So we’ve been talking about why these storms were so strong, why the winds were so high, why we got so much rain. But let’s talk more about power outages specifically. Why were there so many power outages, Dan.

Dan Brekke: I think the main reason there were outages distributed over such a wide area is that we had such prolonged high winds. They started to ramp up on Saturday night and then all day Sunday until early Monday morning hours. Really. You saw the same thing distributed over a huge area of sustained winds, maybe in the 30 to 40 mile an hour range and then gusts up to 60, 70, 80, 90 miles an hour. So I think that’s really the main explanation. Now, there are parts of this that we still don’t know.

Dan Brekke: For instance, PGA is known to have a backlog of power poles that it needs to replace. So how many locations do we have where power poles might might have failed because they were old and needed to be replaced? We don’t know. How many places did some other infrastructure that maybe should have been hardened or better maintained failed? We don’t know that yet. So this will all probably come to light because the utility is required to file a report with the California Public Utilities Commission on any major outage. And of course, this is perhaps the biggest outage they’ve ever had.

Alan Montecillo: I want to drill down to that a little more like what is PPG and his role here? How should we be thinking about this utility in the context of these massive power outages? Because, you know, almost all of us get our power from this utility. We all rely on it. You know, we don’t have to rehash our state’s troubled history with PGE, but what is what is the role here, you think?

Dan Brekke: Well, you know, that’s a really huge question. And people are thinking and talking about that a lot right now for reasons other than a big power outage. What’s happening with PGA right now across the state is people are seeing very high energy bills and of course, in much of California. And I’m really talking about northern and central California. PGA is the only game in town if you want electricity. So when something goes wrong, all fingers I think rightly point to PGA for explanations.

Dan Brekke: So in the past we’ve seen, you know, proposals to try to do more, to, ensure that PGA is doing all the things it needs to do to make sure that the power system is both safe and reliable. It’s a hard industry to regulate, and I think the California Public Utilities Commission and the legislature have both struggled and some would say have failed to do it effectively because PGA has a history of problems. We just happened to go through a year, 2023 where PGA did not start a major fire. But that’s exceptional, right. And its performance in in times like this, when there’s severe winter weather is something that people will continue to scrutinize.

Alan Montecillo: How can we be better prepared then. So we don’t have as many power outages next time there are heavy winds.

Dan Brekke: So I think there are a couple things people look at when they think about making the power system more reliable. I mean, of course, one obvious thing is the best maintenance practices. So make sure that all your equipment is up to date and well-maintained. And Pgti has been very severely criticized for the condition of some of their infrastructure in the past, especially, for instance, in connection with something like the campfire. But beyond things like that, which, as I say, seem obvious, you know, I don’t want to make it sound simple. PGA has a vast network.

Dan Brekke: They have more than 100,000 miles of power lines, so that’s a complex task. But beyond that, I mean, people are talking about things like microgrids, for instance. Creating much smaller areas can be self-contained, like islands, essentially, where the power is generated and consumed within one small area and not dependent on what’s happening in the larger grid. You know, it’s hard to say that we’re going to see anything like that on a large scale. There are places where it’s working now.

Dan Brekke: There’s a little town up in Napa County called Angwin, which has its own little self-contained power island or power system. And PGA is actually played a role in setting that up. Those are the major things. But beyond that, I think what people really want to see is accountability from the regulators, the California Public Utilities Commission, and they want the legislature to actually do a better job of making sure that PGA and the CPUc are accountable for how the power utilities perform.

Dan Brekke: And just to be fair to PGA, this is not just a question for them. There are big power utilities in Southern California. They’re called investor owned utilities. And they’ve had their own problems in the past. And they’re being looked at too, for the same kinds of things that PGA is the the sort of prices they’re charging and whether they’re operating efficiently enough.

Alan Montecillo: Dan, as I said, we’re talking on Tuesday. People will hear this Wednesday. Hopefully a lot of the damage will have been fixed. But how long would it take before everyone’s power is back and, you know, damage from falling trees, whether it’s on your car or your home? How long would it take for those kind of fixes to be to be complete?

Dan Brekke: I think in the case of PGD, most people will see their lights come back on in the next day or two. That’s still a long time to be out of power. There are some places that are remote where the damage to infrastructure is a little bit more complicated to fix or get at, and people there might be out for a week or two. We’ve seen this happen in the past. You know, in terms of, you know, the kinds of things that we see along the streets, tree trees down. You know, that stuff is dealt with pretty quickly, but we’ll see the effects of it for a while.

Dan Brekke: And that’s really minor compared to what’s happening in places like Sonoma County, Marin, rural parts of Napa, and, you know, other parts of the Bay area where it will take probably weeks to get all the storm damage cleaned up. And and there’s a possibility that we haven’t seen all the damage yet. With the ground so saturated. There could be landslides that will cause further damage. Bring more trees down. So we’re not really done with the damage from this storm yet? Probably.

Alan Montecillo: Well Dan, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Dan Brekke: It’s always a pleasure.


Alan Montecillo: That was Dan Brekke, editor and reporter for KQED. This episode was cut down and edited by Dana Cronin. I added the tape in the music with production help from our intern, Ellie Prickett-Morgan. Music courtesy of NPR, First come music and Bluedot sessions. Special thanks to the team at KQED’s Forum, for Eric’s call that you heard at the top of the show. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Talk to you next time.

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