Millions of Californians may go dark in PG&E power shutoff to avoid fires

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PG&E Corp., the California utility giant forced into bankruptcy by two years of devastating wildfires, warned that it may orchestrate its biggest planned blackout yet to keep power lines from sparking more blazes.

PG&E may cut electricity to more than 645,000 customers in the Bay Area and beyond, including parts of Santa Clara and Alameda counties. Shutoffs are set to begin early Wednesday — when hot, dry winds are forecast to pick up speed — and may last several days. Edison International also warned it may cut power to about 106,260 Southern California customers.

Altogether, an estimated 2.25 million people may be affected.

Never before has a utility planned such a widespread shutoff affecting so many customers at once to avoid a wildfire in California. It’s the latest testament to how climate change-driven extreme weather is forcing people and businesses alike to adapt. This week’s outage will mark the first time PG&E has coordinated a blackout in a major metropolitan area. Previous ones involved rural areas prone to wildfires.

The planned shutoff appears to spare most of Silicon Valley’s big tech operations. Mountain View, Santa Clara and most of San Jose were outside of PG&E’s affected zones as of late Tuesday morning. A detailed map posted on PG&E’s website also showed Tesla Inc.’s Fremont factory lying outside the zones, as well as San Francisco, PG&E’s hometown.

The outage is striking almost two years to the day after a series of deadly wildfires — most of them blamed on PG&E’s equipment — broke out across Northern California’s wine country during a fierce wind storm. Then, last year, one of the company’s transmission lines ignited the state’s deadliest blaze yet — the Camp Fire, which leveled the town of Paradise and killed 86 people. The estimated $30 billion in liabilities from those fires forced PG&E to declare bankruptcy in January.

Bloomberg News

PG&E and the state’s other utilities are now taking more extreme measures than ever to keep their power lines from sparking blazes. PG&E has begun switching off transmission lines in advance of high winds.

“This is shaping up to be one of the most severe dry wind events we’ve seen in our territory in recent years,” Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E Electric Operations, said in a statement. “It could take several days to fully restore power after the weather passes and safety inspections are completed.”

For PG&E, the stakes are especially high. Another major blaze sparked by its equipment could upend the company’s restructuring plans. Shares were down 3.6% at 3:06 p.m. in New York.

More details on the upcoming shutoffs:

  • The National Weather Service has posted red flag warnings in parts of six western states, meaning fire danger is high. In California, the warnings ring the Bay Area including Napa County, where the October 2017 Tubbs fire killed at least 22 and destroyed more than 5,600 structures.
  • Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric utility is considering its own shutoffs but hasn’t decided.
  • Oil, natural gas and gasoline pipeline giant Kinder Morgan Inc. said it’s expecting “minimal” impact from the power cuts. “We are working closely with our customers to mitigate any potential effects,” the company said.
  • PG&E’s service warning includes some of California’s most populous areas, including Santa Clara County’s almost 2 million people and Alameda County’s 1.7 million residents, according to state data.
  • The blackout isn’t expected to shut San Francisco’s main rail service, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System. Although the electrified rail service gets power from PG&E, its own cables can redistribute electricity during a blackout and the agency has set up back-up generators, Bart spokesman Jim Allison said. “We’re like a little grid of our own,” he said.
  • Back-up generator manufacturer Generac Holdings Inc. said it expects to see a spike in consultations and leads following the planned outage. Sales are already higher than they’ve ever been in California, the company said.

Bloomberg News

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