Customers in three counties were among 189,000 businesses and homes that could be affected in what would be the second widespread blackout this month in California. That number decreased from 201,000.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could preemptively shut off power Wednesday in 16 Northern California counties in an attempt to curb fire dangers, officials said Tuesday as they continued monitoring dangerous weather conditions.
PG&E customers in San Mateo, Napa and Sonoma counties were among the 189,000 businesses and homes that could be affected this week in what would be the second widespread blackout this month. A utility spokeswoman said officials expected to make a decision Wednesday, but customers across 16 counties were notified by phone, text and email messages that they could be affected.
The number of potentially affected customers decreased from 201,000 as the weather forecast changed, company spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said. Customers who were not notified were not in a potentially affected area, she added. Officials suggest customers prepare for outages that could last more than 48 hours.
“We continue to monitor weather,” Subbotin said. “Weather is very dynamic ... changing around the clock.”
Any shut-offs will be less extensive than the cuts that affected more than 738,000 customers in 30 California counties earlier this month, officials said.
Temperatures and winds are expected to increase Wednesday as humidity levels drop, according to the National Weather Service. Weather service officials issued a red flag warning for the North Bay, the East Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains on Wednesday and Thursday.
The warning begins at noon Wednesday in the North Bay, 3 p.m. in the East Bay and 7 p.m. in the Santa Cruz Mountains, according to the weather service. All warnings will last until 4 p.m. Thursday.
The most dangerous weather is expected Wednesday evening into Thursday afternoon, said Carolina Walbrun, a National Weather Service meteorologist. Wind gusts could blow at 50 to 60 mph in parts of the North Bay and 30 to 40 mph in parts of the East Bay and Santa Cruz Mountains. The weather service on Tuesday upgraded the fire weather outlook for Wednesday in Sonoma and Napa to “critical.”
“Our primary concerns are going to be poor humidity recovery,” Walbrun said. “It’s going to be really, really dry.”
In a letter Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom implored PG&E CEO Bill Johnson to enhance communication with customers in anticipation of another shut-off.
“PG&E’s lapse in planning to provide adequate, accurate and accessible information to its customers and the public was inexcusable,” Newsom wrote. “In the same vein, PG&E’s communications with local and tribal governments lacked even the most basic elements of emergency management organization.”
Newsom urged utility officials to adopt communication initiatives outlined by the California Public Utilities Commission and offered state resources to help with the possible shut-offs. He blasted the company for not following up with customers who were warned of losing power earlier in the month but never did, and for having “unhelpful” information on its website during the shut-offs in early October for those who could access it.
The company’s shareholders have an obligation to customers after the “failed execution” of the earlier shut-offs, Newsom wrote. He suggested utility officials offer $100 rebates or credits to residential customers and $250 to small businesses “for the hardship suffered.”
PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in an email that company leaders “appreciate the feedback” from Newsom and others since the shut-off two weeks ago. PG&E has “taken those requests and suggestions seriously” and is working to implement many of them, he said.
“Right now, we are focused on keeping our customers and communities safe from wildfire risk during what could be another significant wind event and are working to reduce the scope and duration of the safety outage,” Noonan said.
PG&E is also still considering Newsom’s request for rebates to residents and small businesses. But Noonan said PG&E believes that reimbursing customers for losses sustained during a weather-driven event, including forced power outages, is “inconsistent with current regulations and electric tariffs.”
Such reimbursements could also “add unnecessary administrative claims” to PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings that would “come in front of and at the expense of” 2017 and 2018 wildfire victims trying to get paid through the case, Noonan said in the email.
In a letter to Newsom last week, Johnson said “a policy conversation is in order” about whether a state agency such as the utilities commission should be empowered with deciding whether PG&E turns off electricity because of fire risk.
But Newsom said he had no intention of going along with the idea when talking to reporters Tuesday at an environmental conference in Oakland.
“If the decision is going to be made by the state, it’s a bailout for PG&E,” he said. “I don’t support that.”
In the Bay Area, the blackouts could affect 7,533 residential and business customers and 140 medical baseline customers who are dependent on equipment that needs power in Napa County; 907 customers and 15 medical customers in San Mateo County; and 28,460 customers and 927 medical customers in Sonoma County. Despite the red flag warning, East Bay customers were not on a preliminary shut-off list.
About 10 activists gathered Tuesday morning at the California Public Utilities Commission’s offices in San Francisco, where they decried the shutoffs.
Nishikant Sheorey, an organizer with Utility Justice Campaign, which advocates for energy democracy issues, said people affected by the recent shut-off described it as frustrating but something they have to accept because climate change is making wildfires worse.
“That is not an inevitable consequence of climate change,” Sheorey told reporters. “It’s an inevitable consequence of climate change in the context of a utility that puts ... the greed of shareholders above the need of ratepayers.”
PG&E’s blackouts have emboldened Sheorey and other activists who oppose a new California law, AB1054, that authorizes a $21 billion fund to shield the state’s major utilities from future wildfire costs.
The commission is set to vote Thursday on whether to extend a surcharge on customers’ bills to support the new wildfire fund. Activists view the charge, which would have eventually expired if not for AB1054, as a bailout, and they plan to protest the commission’s meeting in Redding.
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