In this Nov 26, 2018, file photo, a Pacific Gas & Electric lineman works to repair a power line in fire-ravaged Paradise, California. (RICH PEDRONCELLI / AP)
It was a once-unthinkable move: purposely shutting off power to millions of people and plunging a major metropolitan area into darkness.
And yet, on Wednesday, utility PG&E Corp began cutting electricity to almost 800,000 California homes and businesses -- representing roughly 2.4 million people -- to prevent wildfires as high winds are forecast to whip through the state. The outages will hit 34 counties, including much of the San Francisco Bay area, triggering a scramble by residents to prepare for what may be days without power.
For PG&E, forced into bankruptcy by devastating fires that its equipment has ignited over the past two years, there is no alternative. The shutoff is a key strategy for preventing its power lines from sparking another deadly -- and costly -- conflagration. It’s largely unprecedented. Never before have California utilities intentionally put so many people out of power for their own safety. Nor have they darkened heavily populated cities in addition to rural areas.
This is unprecedented in terms of what all of us are facing as a community. We are doing everything we can to minimize the impact on our customers’ lives
Sumeet Singh, PG&E Vice President
“This is unprecedented in terms of what all of us are facing as a community,” PG&E Vice President Sumeet Singh said at a media briefing Tuesday night. “We are doing everything we can to minimize the impact on our customers’ lives.”
The shutoff will occur in three phases, with the first impacting 513,000 customers from midnight Wednesday, the company said in a statement. The second stage will occur around noon and affect 234,000. The last phase is being considered for the southernmost portions of PG&E’s service area, impacting 42,000.
As California’s climate warms and dries, the massive blackouts could become a new, annual ordeal. The shutoff warning came two years to the day after wildfires tore through Napa and Sonoma counties, and 11 months after one of PG&E’s transmission lines triggered the Camp Fire, which leveled the town of Paradise and killed 86 people.
“We have a grid that was built to manage a set of circumstances that don’t exist anymore,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University. “We are having to adapt to new circumstances brought about by climate change.”
He estimated PG&E’s blackout for two days could have an economic impact of as much as US$2.6 billion, using a planning tool developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The Bay Area shutoffs will affect major cities including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, which warned residents especially in hillside neighborhoods to prepare for six days without power. California’s transportation agency said it was preparing to close two major tunnels in the region due to the loss of power.
San Francisco, which is less prone to wildfires because of its cool climate and minimal open spaces, will be unaffected. The Silicon Valley campuses of tech giants including Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. are also expected to be spared.
The lantern section is nearly empty at an ACE Hardware store as shoppers prepare for possible power shutoffs in Los Gatos, California, Oct 8, 2019. (DAI SUGANO/SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS VIA AP)
Meanwhile, Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility said it was weighing cutting power to 106,000 homes and businesses, most of them in the mountains east of Los Angeles.
Within the Bay Area blackout zones, residents were rushing Tuesday to buy food, water and electric generators -- almost as if a hurricane were approaching. Stores including Rite Aid and Target across Oakland had run out of flashlights and most batteries. Public officials tried to assure residents that essential services would still be available, while asking them be prepared regardless. The section of PG&E’s website where people can check their home’s status was so inundated that it was inaccessible for much of Tuesday afternoon.
PG&E said its website had received eight times the amount of normal traffic and it would work through the night to get it up back online. As an alternative, the company had posted outage maps for the 34 counties on its Twitter page.
'No one is happy'
Governor Gavin Newsom, at a public appearance Tuesday, called PG&E’s actions warranted while acknowledging the massive disruption the blackout represented.
"No one is happy about it, no one is satisfied, but no one should be surprised, because we have been anticipating this moment for a year,” Newsom said. The blackout, he said, “shows that PG&E finally woke up to their responsibility to keep people safe.”
State Senator Jerry Hill, a frequent PG&E critic, called the blackout an overreaction. “I think they need to spend the billions they’ve already received to harden the system,” he said. “I think they’re in crisis and will do anything to prevent another wildfire.”
PG&E said the shutdown is necessary to keep communities safe and reduce the fire risk. The cutoffs will begin just after midnight and will come in stages, starting in the northern part of the state when winds are forecast to pick up. The utility’s meteorologists have predicted wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour in certain elevated areas, Singh said.
"This is a measure of last resort, given the extreme nature of what is forecast,” Singh said. “We don’t take or make this decision lightly.”
The region’s main commuter rail system -- Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART -- said it expected no impact on its electrified trains or its stations, in part because it had already deployed backup generators to stations that needed them. Similarly, the utility that supplies water to 1.4 million residents east of San Francisco Bay said it had stationed generators at its pumping stations and treatment plants, but it asked residents to conserve water just in case.
"We are here to assure Oaklanders that the city of Oakland is fully prepared for the potential planned outage,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at a Tuesday press conference. “This is an evolving world where these extreme weather conditions that we see from climate change are happening, and we have got to adjust.”
Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, which were hit hard by the wine country fires in 2017, declared local emergencies and called on Newsom to declare a state emergency with the shutoff.
In Emeryville, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, the Home Depot was nearly sold out of back-up generators by Tuesday morning. Andy Kovacevic of Oakland snapped up one of the last units. The 73-year-old said he had rushed down to the store after he got a robo-call from Alameda County, warning him that he could be without power for days.
"I’m not happy about it,” Kovacevic said. “I’m not sure it’s really necessary.” The generator was going to set him back about US$1,000, he said. Kovacevic was going to use it to power his refrigerator, television and maybe an outlet at his house in the Oakland Hills. For lighting, he’d use candles.
Kovacevic said he could understand why PG&E was taking such an extreme measure to prevent another catastrophic fire. An Oakland native, he had to evacuate his house in 1991 when a wildfire burned through the East Bay Hills, destroying many homes but sparing his.
Susan Goggin, 68, lost her home in that 1991 fire, so she understood the risk. On Tuesday, she was shopping for batteries, bottled water, ice and bread at a Safeway in north Oakland, expressing a mix of anger and frustration. She said her husband is disabled, and she worried how she would be able to help him get around their house in the dark. “It will be very difficult,” she said.
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