Amid intensifying political pressure, PG&E Corp. crews have restored power to more than 700,000 homes and businesses in California that had been subjected to a deliberate blackout, the company said Friday.
While about 97 percent of the affected ratepayers – roughly 1½ million people in Northern and Central California – had their lights back on, roughly 22,000 customers were still without electricity late Friday night, more than 66 hours after the utility cut power in 35 counties.
Chief Executive Bill Johnson continued to insist the blackout was necessary to prevent wildfires as high winds swept the state; he predicted at 6 p.m. that 98 percent of the affected customers would have the lights back on by midnight.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and other elected officials kept pounding the bankrupt utility over the blackout, with Newsom telling reporters he’s encouraging outside groups to consider trying to take over the company. A powerful group of bondholders has already mounted a takeover bid.
For the most part, PG&E was quicker to return power to customers in the Bay Area than in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley, where much of the terrain is more rugged. As of Friday afternoon, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said it restored power to all of the 6,300 Yolo County customers whose power was cut off, but only half of the 51,000 affected in El Dorado County and two-thirds of the 52,000 blacked-out Placer County customers.
Service restoration was lagging in Butte County, scene of last November’s deadly Camp Fire. Less than a third of the 27,000 Butte residents who lost power had their electricity back as of Friday afternoon, though power in the town of Paradise was restored. Much of Paradise was destroyed in the Camp Fire.
Sacramento County, which is served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, did not suffer any wind-related blackouts.
PG&E officials said they felt forced to shut down power amid high winds in order to assure that their power lines did not fail and cause a wildfire. The beleaguered utility company is in bankruptcy court, burdened by billions in financial liabilities from numerous 2017 and 2018 wildfires caused by electrical equipment failures.
California officials criticize PG&E
On Friday, El Dorado County fire officials reported a man wearing oxygen supply equipment died in his home about 12 minutes after his electricity was cut. But the county coroner said the man, 67-year-old Robert Mardis, died of severe coronary artery atherosclerosis and wasn’t a victim of the power outage.
PG&E officials said they had little information on the man’s death, and Johnson appeared not to have heard about the coroner’s report until notified by a reporter at a press conference late Friday in San Francisco. “We are saddened by (the death) nonetheless,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Newsom and other elected officials increased their criticisms Friday of PG&E over the massive blackout — the seventh and by far the largest imposed by the utility in the past year. It affected 738,000 households and businesses, or 16 percent of PG&E’s customer base.
Newsom, who this week blasted PG&E for what he called decades of greed and mismanagement, on Friday said his office and state regulators are monitoring PG&E’s actions and plan to conducted a detailed review, assessing all “nuances.”
The Public Utilities Commission and the governor’s Office of Emergency Services are “embedded” this week in PG&E’s blackout command center, a commission spokeswoman said. And Newsom said he’s had numerous conversations with lawmakers over the last three days about how to avoid future widespread blackouts.
”We’re all leaning into it,” Newsom said. “I can assure you, you will see additional efforts into the new year. A lot of it can be done administratively, and a lot of it is already being pursued by the Public Utilities Commission with its new leadership.”
Newsom noted, though, that officials were mainly focused on restoring power and battling wildfires raging in Southern California. One of those, the Saddleridge Fire in the foothills of the San Fernando Valley, on Friday forced evacuation of 100,000 residents, and reportedly burned at least 25 homes.
“The kinds of wind patterns that occurred in the northern part of the state are now occurring in the southern parts,” Newsom said. “We are not out of the woods literally or figuratively in terms of our fire suppression and prevention.”
Newsom told reporters he did not believe the PG&E blackouts were politically motivated. “No, my gosh, that would be another level of outrage,” Newsom said.
He noted that although PG&E shutoffs were the most widespread, they coincided with shutoffs at two other major utilities in Southern California. “The fact that they all did is suggestive of the unique characteristics of the moment – low humidity, very consistently high winds, and then wind gusts – that were not dissimilar to the conditions that created the worst fire season on record a year or so ago.”
Last month, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill to minimize blackouts so that utilities like PG&E don’t overuse them to reduce liability.
“Utilities now have a strong financial incentive to err on the side of blackouts – even when they aren’t necessary – and very little incentive to avoid large blackouts,” Wiener said in a statement last month. He said his bill would force utilities to consider the potential harm to residents and businesses when deciding to shut down power. It also would fine utilities by the hour during planned blackouts. Wiener said his bill is set for hearings in January.
PG&E defends blackout strategy
Johnson defended the blackout strategy despite complaints from residents and state leaders. He apologized for the dramatic step, but said the utility felt it needed to take a zero risk approach to starting a fire. He added that the company consulted extensively with state and local officials before launching the blackout early Wednesday.
The CEO, who joined PG&E in April, showed reporters in San Francisco pictures of branches and trees being blown into power lines as winds gusted, saying they validated the company’s approach.
If the lines had been energized, “you’d have an arc, a spark and a potential ignition of a wildfire,” he said.
Johnson also apologized for a private party that occurred a day before the blackout, in which employees of PG&E’s gas division mingled with top business customers at a Sonoma County winery. The event was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“It was insensitive, it was tone deaf,” Johnson said. He said the event was paid for by PG&E shareholders, not ratepayers.
PG&E said more than 6,300 workers and 44 helicopters were inspecting the utility’s service territory for damage from the gusting winds that prompted the outages.
Singh said PG&E found 30 cases of damages to its equipment from the high winds, and inspectors were continuing to comb through the company’s service territory. “We fully anticipate we’re going to find additional damage,” he said.
PG&E lineman Aaron Rubio was among the 120 to 150 PG&E employees walking and driving under the spiderweb of the utility’s lines in Sierra, Nevada and Placer counties Friday. He worked along the narrow roads off Highway 193 between Lincoln and Newcastle, inspecting the lines for damage and to see if any limbs had fallen on them before they could be re-energized.
The crews had to be careful of poison oak, ticks and falling limbs. Another worry was angry customers. On Tuesday, someone shot at a PG&E worker in Colusa County, police said.
Rubio, a lineman of 22 years, said the hostility doesn’t bother him. He lives in Auburn and has been without power, too.
“It’s the ones that are driving by on the road screaming out their windows,” he said. “You have a face-to-face encounter with a customer, they’re just fine. ... A couple of customers said they were very appreciative of what we were doing. They didn’t mind being in the dark for a for a few days as long as it prevented a wildfire. One lady told us yesterday she’d much rather lose what she had in her refrigerator and her freezer than her house.”
As they made their rounds, they passed resident Sonya Loomis who gave Rubio and his partner a thumbs up from behind her steering wheel and some words of encouragement.
“Who knows what their future is,” she said afterward, alluding to PG&E’s bankruptcy. “They’re just trying to do their job.”
The bankruptcy has left PG&E vulnerable to a hostile takeover bid by a group of bondholders led by hedge fund Elliot Management. Newsom said he hopes more groups make bids to take over PG&E and said he is encouraging several other groups to make counter-offers “in an effort to continue a more competitive playing field.
“There are some very tough players in this space that are vying to take over PG&E,” he said. “That may take us backwards, not necessarily push us forward, so I think the more competition the better.” He added that it’s important that “we don’t just turn this thing over to the sharks that are all about (return on investment) and not about you and I, as it relates to the best interests of the state.”
The utility reopened its daytime community resource centers Friday in counties where electricity was still out, but said it would be closing them once power is restored.
Winds die down, residents lament losses
After several days of high winds across much of the north state, the National Weather Service on Friday morning announced the weather had calmed enough to end an extended three-day red flag warning. Weather officials said the north state may see light rains next week.
The blackout and fire fears remained a major topic from the foothills to the Bay Area.
Business was booming Friday at Ikeda’s California Country Market in Auburn, a popular grocery and deli just off I-80, but owner Glen Ikeda was still toting up the cost of food that spoiled after two days without electricity.
“We probably lost – we’re still assessing the damages – I’m thinking it was $5,000 or $10,000,” Ikeda said.
He said the store had to throw out spoiled meat and other foods, including ingredients for Ikeda’s signature homemade pies. He said he was happy power was restored in time for the weekend, when Ikeda’s does most of its business. But he’s still not pleased about what happened.
His insurance won’t cover the losses, and he’s worried about the possibility of another major blackout. “Is it going to continue to happen ... one after another after another? If it continues to happen, we’re going to have to figure out a different situation.” Generators would set him back at least $50,000, a cost he wants to avoid.
At a community meeting in Pollock Pines, some residents Thursday lamented a prescribed burn that had gotten out of control.
In the days before the red flag warning, the U.S. Forest Service had set brush and trees on fire as part of a long planned fire-fuels reduction project in a rugged stretch of the Eldorado National Forest southeast of Kyburz.
When the winds kicked up, the flames started to spread to the point that the Forest Service was forced to declare the Caples Fire an official wildfire Thursday afternoon. By Friday morning, it had grown to 2,143 acres, and smoke could be smelled and seen as far away as Auburn, about 50 miles away.
Though it was far from their homes, about 50 residents gathered inside a Pollock Pines community center whose lights were kept on by a roaring generator as Forest Service officials gave an update on the fire’s progress.
Some were furious the Forest Service set the woods on fire at all this time of year.
”How is it responsible to us that have (health) problems when you let fires get out of control?” asked a woman wearing a particle mask over her face. She declined to give her name. “You guys burn when there’s not even a storm in sight.”
Laurence Crabtree, Eldorado’s forest supervisor, explained that the fire was still burning within the fuels reduction project’s boundaries, but he acknowledged that the fire had gotten a little out of hand.
”You have a very narrow burn window between it’s too dry and when it’s windy, and it’s snow covered,” Crabtree said. “We believed we hit that window, and today we’re saying it doesn’t look like we did. We’re going to put a line around this fire and stop it.”