California's Largest Utility to Shut Off Power to 800,000 Customers Due to Wildfire Risk

The Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, California in August 2018.
Photo: Josh Edelson (AP)

Power shutoffs are slated to hit customers in 34 of California’s 58 counties between Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon due to high risk of wildfires, with utility company Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) saying it expected nearly 800,000 customers to be affected.

In what PG&E referred to as a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS), customers in northern, central, and coastal California will start seeing outages as soon as just after midnight on Wednesday morning. Electricity will be shut off in stages, beginning with northern California and progressively spreading “depending on local timing of the severe wind conditions.” The utility expects that peak wind will begin on Wednesday morning through midday Thursday, reaching “40 to 55 mph, with isolated gusts up to 60 to 70 mph.”

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According to the Wall Street Journal, PG&E made the decision in response to predictions of strong, dry winds across northern California, raising the risk of more of the wildfires that have ravaged the state in recent years. While rural areas such as Sierra Nevada foothills will be the most impacted, the Journal wrote, California wine country as well as parts of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose will see power shutoffs.

800,000 is almost certainly an underestimate in terms of individuals impacted, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, as each “customer” could be anything from a residential household or an apartment complex to a business. All told, the number who might lose electricity could easily be in the millions.

PG&E electrical transmission lines were implicated in the devastating November 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 civilians as it burned through over 150,000 acres in Butte County in the northern part of the state, as well as 18 others throughout 2017 and 2018. The company filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of the year, saying its liabilities could reach $30 billion from 5,600 fire victims alleging damage as a result of wildfires sparked by its equipment. PG&E is now facing a catastrophic credibility crisis in the state government, largely due to reports it knew in advance its poorly maintained equipment posed a severe fire risk and ditched its obligations to clear lines of tree hazards.

That perhaps explains why PG&E is the “only utility in the nation” to pursue such large-scale power cutoffs, according to the Journal, whereas Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are shutting off fewer customers.

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However, the outages have infuriated customers and alarmed state officials who say PG&E has repeatedly blindsided California residents with sudden cutoffs, including vulnerable populations reliant on power. Stanford University Woods Institute climate and energy program head Michael Wara told the Journal he estimated the cost of a two-day shutoff to 800,000 residential and commercial customers at around $2.5 billion. Disruption is expected to be severe, with widespread closures of pharmacies and grocery stores expected. Reports indicate that many people in the affected areas were caught off guard by the announcement, resulting in runs on stores. It is all but certain that many people in the affected areas remain totally unaware the blackout is coming.

Governor Gavin Newsom complained in June that the company was acting with “no coordination and collaboration with the state.” He told reporters on Tuesday that while PG&E had no choice but to go through with the outage, Californians should be outraged that PG&E’s incompetence had made it the only option.

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A rundown of the expected numbers of customers in each county and city that will lose power is available on PG&E’s website.

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“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event,” PGE senior vice president of Electric Operations Michael Lewis said in a statement on the utility’s website. “We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire.”

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“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Maggie Fleming told the Journal. “We are encouraging people to keep their cellphones charged, have gas in their cars, cash in hand and nonperishable food.”

Climate change has been a massive driver of the wildfires in California, with both drought and autumn drying trends expected to become more severe, literally fueling massive blazes. UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain told Wired that in recent years, wildfires are “burning much more land and they’re burning hotter, more intensely. And there’s a lot of anecdotal, verging on systematic, evidence that these fires are behaving differently. In the initial hours these fires are becoming explosively large much faster than they did historically.”

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Another factor is increasing human settlement in areas prone to wildfires, which increase both the number of fires sparked by human activity and puts more residents and property right in the path of the blazes. California has also faced accusations of poor forest management, including a failure to perform an adequate number of controlled burns that could thin out potential fuel sources.

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Tom McKay

"... An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups online." - Washington Post