Two weeks after a vast power shut-off that it acknowledged it had mishandled, California’s largest utility said Wednesday that it would begin cutting electricity to 179,000 customers later in the day in the face of a new wildfire threat.
The utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, said the shut-offs were expected to begin around 2 p.m. in the Sierra foothills and 3 p.m. in the counties north of San Francisco Bay, including Napa and Sonoma. Areas of Kern and San Mateo counties were scheduled to lose power overnight. The company said that the peak winds should abate by noon Thursday, and that it aimed to restore power to most customers within 48 hours.
PG&E’s equipment has been blamed in the last few years for some of California’s most devastating wildfires, and the power shut-off is meant to reduce the fire hazard.
The blackout strategy, which the utilities use as part of their wildfire prevention programs, is a response to the threat of severe weather conditions that have heightened fire risk across California. The utilities are on alert after two years of large wildfires in the state’s history, with some of the most destructive incidents caused by failures of utility equipment that ultimately killed scores of people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
All three of the state’s investor-owned utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — have warned their customers that the lights could go out as high winds blow across California.
But the pre-emptive power outages, known as public safety power shut-offs, have increasingly faced criticism from customers as well as the highest levels of state government, after PG&E cut electricity to millions of people two weeks ago in a botched execution of the program. The company apologized for its handling of the blackout, and regulators held an emergency meeting on Friday to compel PG&E executives to explain why communications systems failed, the website crashed and so many went without electricity for days.
“Sadly, the state has learned too well in recent years the level of destruction climate change-induced weather events can have on our communities when combined with negligent maintenance of electrical infrastructure,” Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said during the emergency hearing. “California will become more resilient, but resilience will not and should never translate to Californians being willing to put up with inadequate execution of measures that are supposed to keep them safe.”
The National Weather Service began detecting an uptick in winds throughout the state early Wednesday, though the most severe conditions were not expected until later in the day in Northern California and until Thursday in Southern California.
Suzanne Sims, a meteorologist with the Weather Service, said conditions in the Napa and Sonoma wine country were expected to resemble those from 2017, when wildfires devastated the region in the first of the two major incidents over the last couple of years.
“It’s just so dry with relatively low humidity,” Ms. Sims said. “This should wrap up by Friday. But there’s another episode of strong winds by Saturday night and Sunday morning.”
The strongest winds over the next two days are expected in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, where gusts could reach 65 miles per hour. Light Santa Ana winds were already being felt Wednesday morning.
The prospect of the high-wind event prompted Southern California Edison to increase the potential number of customers affected by a power shut-off to more than 162,000. Robert Laffoon-Villegas, an Edison spokesman, said the utility expected to add a “significant number” of customers to the current total as the day progressed.
San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered use of the power shut-off approach, listed fewer than two dozen communities in its warning, with a total of just under 24,000 customers.
Each customer represents a home or business, so the total number of people affected is far larger.
Southern California has already fought wildfires in recent weeks. Edison’s equipment is a suspected cause of one of the fires, in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles County.
PG&E began warning customers Monday of the growing weather threat, making phone calls as well as sending emails and texts to those who might face the next round of blackouts. The utility has taken a more surgical approach to this week’s power shut-offs than two weeks ago.
The company has been under scrutiny for its handling of the blackout strategy when it left two million people in the dark Oct. 9-12, many without notice. Customers and local governments struggled to get information as PG&E’s website crashed twice and other communications were poorly run.
After the troubles with its website two weeks ago, PG&E created a separate website to provide information about the power shut-offs. But that also ran into problems early Tuesday, shutting down at least once for 45 minutes before workers restored it.
At a news conference Tuesday night, Bill Johnson, chief executive of PG&E’s parent company, said the website had since been tested and that he had checked it personally to make sure it worked. “I am keeping an eye on it,” he said, “and it better work.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom continued his push this week for PG&E to issue rebates of $100 to residential customers and $250 for small businesses after the utility’s handling of the power shut-off two weeks ago. Mr. Johnson has said PG&E is considering the request.