has begun to shut off power to hundreds of thousands of people in California as it seeks to prevent its electric lines from sparking more deadly wildfires, in what is believed to be the largest such pre-emptive blackout ever.
The outages are poised to hit areas across the northern and central parts of the state, including the famous wine country region, the rural Sierra Nevada foothills and portions of Oakland and San Jose. The utility is implementing the shut-offs as strong, dry winds are expected to hit the region, increasing the risk that its equipment could start fires.
PG&E said early Wednesday the shut-offs will occur in three phases, the first of which began affecting about 513,000 customers from around midnight local time. These outages will be spread across 22 counties, the utility said, including Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma in the wine country region.
PG&E plans to cut power of nearly 800,000 residences and businesses in California starting early Wednesday in order to avert wildfires.
The second phase is set to occur around noon Wednesday, turning off service to approximately 234,000 customers in seven additional counties, PG&E said. These include Alameda, home to Oakland and Berkeley, and Santa Clara, whose largest city is San Jose.
A third phase is being considered for the southernmost portions of PG&E’s service area, affecting approximately 42,000 customers, the company said. Specific locations were still to be determined, it said.
PG&E said it anticipates the severe weather to last through midday Thursday, with peak winds forecast from Wednesday morning through Thursday morning and reaching 60 to 70 miles an hour at higher elevations.
The company has said the shut-offs could last for a number of days and would cover parts of 34 of California’s 58 counties, a huge swath of the nation’s most populous state.
“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,” said
PG&E’s senior vice president of electric operations.
Sonoma County officials said Tuesday they were bracing for nearly half of the area’s half-million residents to potentially lose power, darkening large parts of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and other major cities in the area north of San Francisco. “It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Maggie Fleming, a Sonoma County spokeswoman, adding, “We are encouraging people to keep their cellphones charged, have gas in their cars, cash in hand and nonperishable food.”
PG&E dramatically expanded the use of so-called public safety power shut-offs earlier this year in a bid to prevent its power lines from igniting dry brush on windy days. Its equipment sparked 19 major wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that collectively killed more than 100 people. The company sought bankruptcy protection in January, citing more than $30 billion in potential fire-related liability costs.
The state’s other large utilities, Edison International’s Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric, have similar plans in place to shut off electricity to reduce wildfire risk. Southern California Edison said on its website Tuesday that it is also considering cutting power as a result of dangerous wind conditions, to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight counties near Los Angeles.
But PG&E, which provides gas and electricity to roughly 16 million people, or 1 in 20 Americans, is the only utility in the nation to deploy this strategy on such a large scale. The company has since June implemented several shut-offs that together affected more than 100,000 Northern Californians.
Cutting power during high winds creates hardships for homeowners, businesses and people who depend on electricity for medical devices. However, keeping it on potentially exposes PG&E to greater liability costs should one of its lines spark a blaze.
Michael Wara, head of the climate- and energy-policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute, estimated that a two-day shut-off affecting 800,000 of PG&E’s residential and commercial customers could cost as much as $2.5 billion. He said that number, which he calculated using a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory tool for estimating such losses, is largely based on lost industrial and commercial activity and may be lower if the outages predominantly affect residences.
PG&E: Full Coverage
“This is likely to generate a lot of negative feelings and anger against PG&E, even more than there is now,” Mr. Wara said. On whether to pull the plug, he added, “I don’t envy anyone who has to make that decision.”
PG&E’s website crashed Tuesday as residents sought information about when they might be affected, and for how long. The company has said that it generally wouldn’t cover losses due to intentional shut-offs.
The utility’s first power shut-off last October demonstrated the disruption that can ensue when the lights go off for days. Emergency officials in several small Northern California communities were challenged to check on residents who required extra help, and a range of businesses lost customers and inventory.
PG&E has been working since then to improve its alert system and work with local authorities to try to ensure water, traffic lights, phones and other critical services remain functional during a shut-off.
In Fort Bragg, Calif., Angie Renteria said she is ready for an outage, should one hit her city along the Mendocino County coast. “We’ve got water, we’ve got a generator and we’ve got gas, so we’re good,” said Ms. Renteria, a 35-year-old pharmacy clerk. “The only thing I need to do is get cash.”
Pharmacies are among the businesses bracing for impact. In a recent survey of 15 pharmacies in Mendocino County, local emergency officials reported that in the event of a planned outage only five would be fully operational, five would be closed and the rest would operate with limited services such as prescriptions already processed.
Among those facing closure is the Howard Pharmacy in Willits, Calif., where employees on Tuesday hurried to fill prescriptions that had been scheduled for pickup later in the week before the business possibly closes Wednesday. Manager Carrie Winter said her pharmacy lacks a backup generator to stay open, so there would be no other choice but to close for the duration of an outage.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Ms. Winter said as she and her staff filled orders and answered calls from anxious customers.
Another casualty of the outage would be grocery stores. In a survey, Mendocino County found only about one-third of 120 food markets would remain open during a planned outage.
Some residents consider outages a small price to pay for greater safety assurance at the height of wildfire season. Kirk Trostle, who lost his house during the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise, said that while losing power is frustrating, he would rather have PG&E cut power than risk its infrastructure sparking another fire.
“That means their failing equipment isn’t going to cause another town to be decimated,” said Mr. Trostle, a retired Chico police chief who is one of many Camp Fire survivors suing the utility.
If their service is turned off, Mr. Trostle said, he and his wife would use a generator to power the refrigerator as well as a pump that connects to the 2,000-gallon tank they have been using to have safe drinking water in Paradise, where he resides in a rental apartment. Tests following the Camp Fire found benzene in the local supply that authorities tied to burning material drawn into the water system.
Others are less understanding. Steve “Woody” Culleton, a former Paradise councilman, called the potential shut-off absurd and asinine. He has been living in Chico since the Camp Fire destroyed his home, which he is in the process of rebuilding.
“Why don’t they just fix their infrastructure?” he said. “If they cut off power in Chico at 4 a.m., we’ll wake up in the dark. We’ll have nothing.”