PG&E restores power to thousands, starts line inspections in Northern California

Northern California’s two-day-old power outage drama may have turned a corner.

Saying winds have died down sufficiently in many Northern California counties, Pacific Gas and Electric announced Thursday it had restored power to thousands of customers and was giving its crews the go-ahead to begin inspecting power lines in all but one of the 34 counties hit with deliberate blackouts.

PG&E restored power to approximately 228,000 customers, leaving 510,000 households and businesses without power Thursday evening, said vice president Sumeet Singh, who runs the utility’s wildfire safety program. Singh said winds had eased off enough to allow crews to begin inspecting in most of the blackout-out area, except for the vicinity of Paradise — the scene of last November’s horrific Camp Fire — and parts of Kern County.

“We are now moving from turning off the lights to turning on the lights,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters at the Office of Emergency Services’ operations center. But he kept up his criticism of the troubled company, saying, “This can’t be the new normal. It’s a false choice to say it’s hardship or safety.”

PG&E defended the decision to shut off power, however. “We believe we made the right call on safety,” CEO Bill Johnson told reporters at headquarters in San Francisco. “We determined we must have zero risk of a spark.”

Nonetheless, Johnson apologized for depriving customers of “a fundamental service they expect and deserve” — and noted serious problems in communicating to residents as the blackouts approached. “Our website crashed several times, our maps are inconsistent .... Our call centers were overloaded,” Johnson said. He vowed that PG&E would do better in the future, even as he warned that the utility would continue to impose blackouts in the name of wildfire safety.

“We will very likely have to make this kind of decision again in the future,” Johnson said.

But he added that PG&E is continuing to invest heavily in “vegetation management” programs and other measures to make the power grid safer and reduce the number of blackouts.

PG&E launched the unprecedented mass blackout early Wednesday as high winds raised fears of a major wildfire. The utility was driven into bankruptcy by the devastating fires of 2017 and 2018.

In total, since Wednesday, about 738,000 customers had their power cut at some point in an area stretching from Kern County to the North Coast, the company said.

But even as it sent the “all clear” sign to allow crews to begin inspecting power lines and other equipment, PG&E wouldn’t say how quickly it can restore power. It has warned residents it might take days to fully inspect more than 100,000 miles of power lines before flipping the switch back on.

Singh said the company already found “multiple cases of damages ... suspected to be caused by the wind event,” including branches falling into power lines.

There have been no fires caused by power lines, the utility reported, but multiple small fires have popped up around the north state since Wednesday.

The utility started some inspections mid-morning Thursday in the Humboldt area, where 50,000 customers lost power.

The “all clear” announcement covers all or parts of several blacked-out counties in the Sacramento region. Amador, Calaveras and San Joaquin counties have been given the “all clear” signal, indicating the weather is tame enough to begin inspections there.

El Dorado and Placer counties have been given partial clearance for inspections to begin on some lines. The utility company did not designate which areas would be inspected first, nor when power might be restored.

That frustrates Jennifer Roe, who lives in the hills near Rescue, where there wasn’t any breeze, let alone wind, Thursday afternoon. Her two kids, Scarlett 4, and Madyson, 8, played in the front yard with friends, lamenting that they can’t play their Minecraft computer game.

The family hasn’t had power since midnight Wednesday. Food has spoiled and the refrigerator is leaking, Roe said. Yet, “there is not even a leaf blowing,” she said. “Not a single breeze all night. My wind chime hasn’t rang once.”

The Thursday afternoon inspection announcement is good news, though, for many residents who have been hunkered down without power for nearly two days in the foothills, giving them hope that the lights may go back on soon.

Several Bay Area and central coast counties got the go-aheads as well Thursday afternoon for power line inspections. That includes San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Monterey.

An estimated 16 percent of PG&E’s customers were hit or will be hit with intentional blackouts this week in Northern California and as far south as Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley.

The utility company imposed the unprecedented shutoff starting after midnight Wednesday to avoid causing a wildfire during what weather officials say are some of the highest velocity winds the north state has seen in two years. Power line failures in high winds led to devastating wildfires in the north state in 2017 and again in 2018.

Since then, the utility company has conducted seven prescribed blackouts. The current “public safety power shutoff” is by far the largest of those.

As of Thursday afternoon, residents in 34 north state counties were still without power. That includes tens of thousands of customers in the greater Sacramento Valley and foothills area:

  • 30,000 in Butte County, scene of last November’s devastating Camp Fire
  • 16,000 in Amador County
  • 51,000 in El Dorado County
  • 52,000 in Placer County, (Roseville, with its own electric company, has not lot power)
  • 6,000 in Yolo County, including Winters, Esparto, the Capay Valley and West Sacramento

PG&E, which has wind monitoring equipment, reported gusts of 77 miles per hour at Mount St. Helena in Sonoma County and 75 mph at Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County.

PG&E announced at noon Thursday it had cut off power to about 10,000 people in the southern part of California’s agricultural Central Valley because winds are picking up speed and increasing the danger of wildfires, according to the Associated Press.

The blackout has come under heavy criticism from public officials and residents.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a fierce critic of PG&E, said the utility created a “Third World” condition simply to protect itself legally and financially while plunging millions into darkness.

“I strongly disagree with the binary position currently offered by PG&E — they can turn the power off and shut down the economy and livelihoods of millions in California,” he said in a letter to the Public Utilities Commission. “This situation is not acceptable nor sustainable.”

Hill in a letter this week called on the California Public Utilities Commission to conduct a thorough analysis of the blackout to delve into PG&E’s decision-making process, and to learn from any mistakes and successes.

“How are we meant to know whether or not the scale and circumstances of a (power shutoff) are justified if our utility regulator (CPUC) is not even analyzing the event or its impact?” Hill wrote.

PUC officials declined to comment on Hill’s request Thursday, but said in an email to The Bee that it has observers in the PG&E command center this week who are looking at ways to improve PG&E’s process.

The utility continued to defend its decision to de-activate service to nearly 800,000 customers this week.

“We faced a choice between hardship or safety, and we chose safety. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience and the hardship, but we stand by the decision because the safety of our customers and communities must come first,” said company vice president Michael Lewis.

PG&E officials have said they must conduct those inspections on about 27,500 line miles, as well as do repairs, before they turn power back on. They say they must await an “all clear” signal from the weather service as winds die down. Those officials say they do not know when power might be restored. On Tuesday night, they said inspections and repair work could take up to five days.

The company has assembled 45 helicopter and 6,3000 on-ground inspectors for post-wind work that likely will extend through the weekend.

Several fires are underway in California, including one near Yosemite National Park that has been burning since Sunday. The biggest wildfire scare thus far came in the early hours of Thursday, when a rapidly spreading wildfire broke out in the Contra Costa County town of Moraga shortly after 1 a.m.

More than 150 firefighters with the Merrill-Orinda Fire Department and Cal Fire’s Santa Clara Unit responded to a wildfire that spread rapidly in the hills to 40 acres, and prompted evacuation orders for dozens of homes in the town’s Sandy Ranch neighborhood. However, forward progress of that fire was halted by around 3:30 a.m., and Cal Fire confirmed via Twitter a couple of hours later that all evacuation orders had been lifted.

Although some Californians are undoubtedly suffering losses, including businesses in affected areas, a prominent economist said the overall economic impact of the blackouts will be minimal.

“It’s business delayed instead of business canceled,” said Chris Thornberg, the director of UC Riverside’s Center for Economic Forecasting. “Whatever doesn’t get done today will get done next week.”

Thornberg acknowledged that there are costs to the blackouts, such as “the food is spoiling in the freezer or the tourists lose a day of wine tasting.”

But this week’s blackouts are causing less harm than the rolling blackouts Californians endured during the 2001 energy crisis, which occurred without warning. This week, residents at least had time to prepare for the power outages and reduce their losses, he said.

Living in a darkened world proved to be a hassle for some people, less so for others.

A long line of cars Thursday snaked around Lower Grass Valley Road and looped into the Robinson Enterprises Cardlock, possibly the only gas station still open on the outskirts of Nevada City. The line for gas had already formed at 5:30 a.m. when Jason Hoffler, the manager, arrived.

“We’re going on an hour and a half,” said Anita Vernon, 43, from the window of an Audi. There were still 11 cars in front of her. “I’m about to run out of fuel and I don’t know if I’m going to make it in there. Somebody is going to have to push me in.”

It was an unusual day. Vernon’s daughters were at home because their school was closed, and the family ate ice cream and tiramisu out of their refrigerator for breakfast.

“Everything in my fridge is now gone,” said Vernon. She is among many who complained that their area has not been windy. PG&E officials said that the power was shut down because there have been high winds up-mountain, where transmission lines feed power into populated areas.

For some, it was less of an inconvenience. Phyllis Vomacka-Parkhouse, 60, of Nevada City, said she and her husband have a generator for their 10-acre horse ranch. Because winter power outages are common, they already knew how to prepare.

“Fill up the horse’s water troughs and make sure the animals are taken care of -- that’s our main concern,” she said. “There’s no TV, but we can go outside and work with the animals.

“It’s not that hard for us but I’m sure a lot of people don’t have the distractions we have.”

Reporters Michael Finch II , Ryan Sabalow and Bryan Anderson contributed to this report.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.