PG&E plans another big blackout. Here’s how many Californians could lose power

Get ready for another major blackout, courtesy of PG&E Corp.

The troubled utility warned Monday that it could shut power Wednesday night to as many as 209,000 households and businesses to safeguard portions of its grid from gusting winds and the threat of a major wildfire.

Just ten days ago, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. finished restoring power to the last of 738,000 customers after an unprecedented mass blackout that affected portions of 35 counties. The outage left an estimated 1.5 million Northern and Central Californians without power.

Utility executives came under withering criticism from Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials for allowing the grid to be vulnerable, for imposing such a broad blackout and for a host of communication problems that left utility executives apologizing for days. Among other things, the utility’s website crashed and its call center was overwhelmed by residents trying to get information.

The company vowed to improve communications and said it began customer notifications began Monday afternoon via text, email and automated phone calls. Still, it defended the blackout itself, saying it likely prevented a major wildfire. Chief Executive Bill Johnson repeated those claims at a press conference Monday evening.

“If you look at where the damage occurred on the system, it was exactly in the area where we turned off the power,” Johnson said. “We might have turned it off a little quicker than we needed too, but the scope I think was correct.”

Appearing before the Public Utilities Commission last week, Johnson said PG&E is trying to narrow the scope of future blackouts. He also warned that Californians might have to get used to deliberate outages for another decade as the utility scrambles to make its power lines and other equipment more resilient. In addition, he said PG&E is open to the idea of letting state agencies have the final say on whether a “public safety power shutoff” should be imposed.

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PG&E said the latest shutoff could affect customers in the following counties: Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Sierra, Sonoma, Sutter and Yuba.

Johnson said a final decision on shutting off the power would come after midday on Wednesday.

The utility said its “meteorological and operations teams continue to monitor weather models that show potential strong and dry offshore wind gusts that may exceed 55 mph late Wednesday evening through Thursday afternoon for portions of the Sierra Foothills. Gusts of 35-45 mph have been forecast for some North Bay counties, with some localized areas expected to experience 55 mph gusts.”

The National Weather Service issued a “fire weather watch” for huge swaths of Northern California beginning Wednesday.

Meteorologist Scott Strenfel warned of fuel levels being “as dry if not drier than the event we just went through.”

PG&E Chief Customer Officer Laurie Giammona said the company will do their best to assist elderly and assisted living people affected by a shutoff.

“We’re gonna be coordinating with the county agencies to provide support for transit for customers, hotels or batteries if necessary,” Giammona said. “We’ve been working with Cal OES and California Foundation for Independent Living, sending emails out to customers asking what support they need.”

PG&E has been blamed by state investigators for last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, and most of the October 2017 wine country fires. The billions of dollars in liabilities drove PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and made the company, which previously had been reluctant to engineer deliberate blackouts, far more aggressive about cutting power in high winds.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Mack Ervin III covers breaking news and high school sports for The Bee. A journalism student at Sacramento State, he follows auto racing and most other sports.