Pacific Gas & Electric warned that it would likely cut power temporarily to hundreds of thousands of customers in Northern California by Wednesday night for the second time in two weeks.
A growing threat of offshore winds combined with dry air and high temperatures have made 16 counties in the Sierra Foothills and the North Bay vulnerable to wildfires, the utility said on Monday. The company sent phone messages, texts and emails to those who might be affected by the shut-off, as a new fire in Southern California burned near multimillion-dollar homes.
The sole purpose of the shut-off “is to significantly reduce catastrophic wildfire risk to our customers and communities,” said Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president for electric operations, who made the decision to cut power to about two million people two weeks ago.
Bill Johnson, PG&E’s chief executive officer, said during a news conference that “we don’t want to turn off the power,” but the threat of high winds and dry conditions increased the risk that the equipment could cause fires. He said several steps have been taken to improve the power shut-off process this time, including making community resource centers with restrooms, bottled water, chargers for electronic devices and other amenities available ahead of the blackouts.
PG&E, which has been convicted of criminal negligence for its handling of its natural gas system and blamed by state authorities for a wildfire that killed scores of people, was widely criticized for its handling of the previous power shut-offs, which began Oct. 9 and lasted for four days. Millions were left in the dark, many without notice. Businesses and schools were forced to close. The utility’s website crashed twice.
Residents scrambled to purchase power generators. Those with disabilities and dire health concerns found their lives endangered.
The utility used the power shut-offs to prevent another year of devastating wildfires, modeling after San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered the strategy.
Guarding against wildfires caused by its equipment has become critical for PG&E. The company filed for bankruptcy in January as it faced tens of billions of dollars in liability claims. Its equipment had been blamed for causing two dozens fires in recent years.
But state regulators and Gov. Gavin Newsom railed against PG&E’s executives for their handling of the power shut-offs, saying the company had again failed at its job.
“What we saw play out with PG&E last week cannot be repeated,” Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said during an emergency hearing Friday to discuss the utility’s actions. “Unless it is executed well, shutting off power has severe health and economic consequences.”
Mr. Johnson said during Monday’s news conference that the severe weather approaching Northern California raised the possibility that the utility would have to cut power again.
PG&E’s meteorological and operations teams determined that strong and dry offshore wind gusts might exceed 55 miles per hour late Wednesday evening through Thursday afternoon for portions of the Sierra Foothills. Gusts of 35 to 45 m.p.h. have been forecast for some North Bay counties, with some localized areas expected to experience 55 m.p.h. gusts.
State officials have classified more than half of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and Central California as posing a high fire threat due to dry grasses and numerous dead and dying trees. The state’s high-risk areas have tripled in size in seven years.
For this event, PG&E said customers visiting the pge.com website are being redirected to a special, strength-tested site that can accommodate high volumes of traffic. The temporary site provides customer information by address, community resource center locations and other shutdown-related information. Online services such as bill payments will be unavailable until after power has been restored.
Mr. Johnson said the increasingly disastrous effects of climate change will continue to make power shut-offs necessary, though less often as PG&E and other utilities harden their electric systems. But he said it will likely take a decade before PG&E no longer uses power shut-offs as a tool for preventing wildfires based on what he has seen from the experiences at San Diego Gas & Electric, which began work on its system after fires in 2007.
“I think we’re being realistic about it,” Mr. Johnson said. “There will be fewer every year.”
Time is of the essence for PG&E, California’s largest utility, to demonstrate its ability to manage its operations.
Cities like San Francisco and San Jose have increasingly called for breaking up PG&E and turning its operations into municipal utilities.
Mr. Newsom has said he wants PG&E to issue rebates of $100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses for the impact of the power shut-offs earlier this month. Mr. Johnson said the utility is reviewing the idea but he is concerned about the precedent such a request might set.
For all the criticism, Mr. Johnson has maintained that the most significant result of the power shut-off strategy has been that it prevented the utility’s equipment from causing a wildfire. Even though the execution of the power shut-offs was poor, he said he believes the scope targeting the two million people was necessary.
“We got that right,” Mr. Johnson said.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, a Bay Area Democrat, said that after numerous incidents involving the utility’s negligence that have cost the lives of scores of people throughout the company’s service area, it has become difficult to believe PG&E.
“We just don’t, we meaning the public, we can’t rely on their assessment of the need,” Mr. Hill said. “It may be necessary, but there’s no one to verify their actions and no one can trust their actions.”
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