SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Another round of public safety power shutoffs was being planned this week by Pacific Gas and Electric as more hot, dry, windy weather was forecast for Northern California.
But PGEE’s CEO Bill Johnson insisted, no decisions have yet been made during a press conference early Monday evening..
“We are hoping that the weather breaks in our favor and we don’t have to do this,” Johnson said.
PG&E meteorologists intensively monitored a high pressure system heading toward Northern California Monday, carrying with it a threat of Red Flag Warning high winds and low humidity conditions by midweek.
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The utility activated its Emergency Operations Center on Sunday night, carefully tracking the system that was developing into a strong and dry offshore wind event for portions of the North Bay, Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Foothills by Wednesday and Thursday.
ADVISORY: PG&E Tracking Midweek Dry, Offshore Wind Event – May Need to Proactively Turn Off Power for Safety in Portions of 15 Counties in Sierra Foothills and North Bay. Approximately 209K customers notified they may be impacted beginning Wed. evening. https://t.co/USVO1MfcyL pic.twitter.com/kKikVYAKRg
— PG&E (@PGE4Me) October 22, 2019
However, officials said they did not expect to impose the kind of widespread outages that the utility did earlier this month. About 738,000 customers lost power in the preemptive shutoff beginning Oct. 9th across more than 30 counties as part of PG&E’s efforts to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires.
This week, the utility said outages could occur in San Mateo, Mendocino, Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties in the Bay Area. Impacts may also be felt in Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Joaquin, Tehama, Yolo and Yuba counties.
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The officials said its meteorological and operations teams’ models show wind gusts may exceed 55 mph late Wednesday evening through Thursday afternoon for portions of the Sierra Foothills. Winds between 35 and 45 mph with some 55 mph gusts in localized areas are forecast for Sonoma and Napa counties.
According to PG&E, the potential safety shutoff is planned for varying start times depending on location beginning Wednesday evening and is expected to affect approximately 209,000 customers.
Breaking down the impact in different regions, PG&E said the shutoff will affect 9,623 customers and 206 baseline customers in Napa County, 33,613 customers and 1,082 baseline customers in Sonoma County and 6,462 customers and 104 baseline customers in San Mateo County.
“This sort of hodge-podge way of dealing with things really doesn’t solve the problem,” said San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa who said PG&E did not give timely information to county officials and even when it did, covered too broad an area.
“Mr. Johnson said a lesson learned from the last blackout is to upgrade the web site. Here’s a suggestion: how about they upgrade their dangerous power grid?” Canepa said.
Customers were notified by text and automated phone calls Monday afternoon, and PG&E said an employee will knock on the doors of customers with medical issues who are enrolled in its Medical Baseline program.
PG&E officials said they will focus their efforts on those customers who need electricity for life-sustaining equipment.
“Damage during high wind is possible even though our equipment in high fire threat areas meet or exceeds standards,” said CEO Johnson Monday. “We inspected all that equipment earlier this year, we fixed all high-priority issues. The issue in California is that more and more of our service area is considered by the state to be of high-fire risk. In fact, three times more of our service area is at high risk of fire than was the case seven years ago. About 15 percent in 2012, more than 50 percent today.”
Johnson said the PG&E service area is about 70,000 square miles and keeping the area free from fire risk while weighing the impact of a power shutoff is an ongoing concern.
“We’re really dealing with a new reality here, and power shutoffs are one tool we have to keep the community safe and combat this risk,” said Johnson. “It’s not a tool that we want to use, it’s certainly not a tool that we like to use. It runs against the grain of why most of us ever got into this business. And we do understand it creates hardship and comes with its own potential safety issue for others.”
Johnson said the company has set up a sister website where customers can determine whether their power will be shut off.
An outage map will be available to city and county leaders.
KPIX 5 spoke with Santa Rosa residents Monday who said they hoped there would be better direct communication from the utility if another shutdown takes place.
“[We are] increasing the capacity for our website traffic and also for our call centers. And we are working on bettering our maps so there is a little bit more clarity on that front,” said PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissia.
PG&E said if and when there is another power shutdown, it will be a more user friendly experience. Many of those who live in the areas where this is becoming routine aren’t so sure about that.
“That was my first thought when I heard the weather was going to change; it was ‘We’re going to go through this again,'” said Sonoma County resident Steve Baldaramos. “Of course this morning getting emails from NextDoor.com: ‘Hey, PG&Es talking about it again.'”
Baldaramos bought his generator in the past week in preparation for additional outages.
“Had to order mine through Amazon because all the shops and stores around here were out of generators,” he explained.
An avalanche of criticism rained down on PG&E for the shutoffs that began Oct. 9th and lasted for several days.
During a meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission last week, President Marybel Batjer said that the utility failed on so many levels on simple matters during and before those outages. She tore into the utility for still not having a solid communication plan in place for any future shutoffs like this week.
“You said we need to get there. You need to get there now — not at the end of the year,” said Batjer. “How many counties have you talked to since last week? How many county managers? Or how many direct EOC managers have you called and said, ‘Oops, we blew it.’ And we’re gonna have a better relationship and it’s going to start today.”
Johnson fired back during the meeting.
“I have heard and read a lot of skepticism about our actions. I hear skepticism about whether the shutoff was truly necessary and whether the scope was too large; skepticism that we did this to save our own skin, rather than for public safety. The fact is we did this for one reason and that is safety,” Johnson said.
Joe Vazquez contributed to this report.