SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The nation’s largest utility said Tuesday it is executing smarter and shorter power shutoffs after receiving widespread criticism last year when it turned off electricity to 2 million people to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.
The targeted outages that began overnight to nearly 172,000 homes and businesses in central and Northern California are the first by Pacific Gas & Electric since critics blasted last year’s shut-offs as poorly executed and overly broad.
The outages come as thousands of firefighters battle wildfires that have been burning for weeks at the same time many of the state’s 40 million residents shelter at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The business and household customers without power Tuesday were in areas including the Sacramento Valley, Sierra Nevada foothills and parts of Napa and Sonoma counties in wine country. PG&E started shutting off power Monday night, saying that dry, hot, windy weather forecast until Wednesday posed a significant fire risk.
Power likely won’t be restored until Wednesday evening, and extra helicopters will be on hand to speed up inspections required before the utility can turn lines back on, said company spokesman Jeff Smith. Its website detailing the locations of power shutoffs appeared to be working Tuesday, unlike last year when it crashed repeatedly.
The utility has learned to make the planned shutoffs, “smarter, shorter and smaller,” than last year’s blackouts, said Smith. He said the utility is targeting outages more narrowly and plans to have power restored within 12 daylight hours of severe weather ending.
Southern California Edison warned roughly 55,000 customer accounts may lose power while San Diego Gas & Electric said 16,700 customers are at risk of a preemptive outage.
Robert Villegas, spokesman for Southern California Edison, said they are tracking a wind event that may begin late Tuesday, affecting roughly 11,000 households and businesses in Los Angeles County and 15,000 in San Bernardino County.
A series of preemptive outages last fall by the three utilities affected millions of people, some for days at a time.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Marybel Batjer, president of the state Public Utilities Commission excoriated PG&E and the other for-profit companies for the chaos and poor communication. Local emergency officials said they did not get timely information to relay to residents. The commission is continuing a nine-month investigation into the bungled blackouts.
PG&E promised to improve its performance this year while largely defending its decisions last year. It has warned that preemptive power shutoffs should be expected for the long-term as the state grapples with hot and windy weather that is ideal for sparking wildfires triggered by failing equipment. Wildfires have been burning in California for weeks.
PG&E’s aging equipment has previously sparked some of the state’s largest wildfires, including the deadly 2018 fire that destroyed much of the town of Paradise and killed 85. The utility pleaded guilty in June to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter; one death was ruled a suicide. The utility paid $25.5 billion in settlements to cover the losses from power line-sparked catastrophes.
Kristen Broderick, an esthetician who specializes in eyelash extensions, was prepared to work a 10-hour day at Studio 3 Salon in Sonora in Tuolumne County. But the salon lost power, as did her home. She has two children under 5 to care for in the heat and smoke.
“We were definitely more prepared this time, less panicked I suppose, but it wasn’t this hot last time,” she said. The coronavirus pandemic, fires and power outages are wearying, she said.
“I feel like we’re in a constant state of paranoia, we never know what’s going to happen next. It’s a hard way to function,” Broderick said.
This time, the potential for blackouts to wreak havoc is higher as millions of people work and attend classes from home during the pandemic. There is concern that if mishandled, the outages could also endanger the lives of people being supported by medical devices after contracting COVID-19.
“A shut off or a fire shouldn’t be customers’ only choices,” said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman with consumer group The Utility Reform Network, which has long advocated for utility reforms.
“With more and more of life’s essentials including school, work and healthcare only available online, we urgently need a utility company that can provide safe power that we can depend on. PG&E doesn’t appear to be able to do that,” she said.