SACRAMENTO — Amid intensifying political pressure — and the reported death of an elderly customer in El Dorado County — PG&E Corp. crews restored power Friday to more than a half-million homes and businesses in California that had been subject to a deliberate blackout.
While three-quarters of the affected ratepayers had their lights back on, nearly 200,000 customers were still without electricity more than 60 hours after the utility giant cut power in 34 counties to reduce wildfire risks as high-velocity winds swept much of the state.
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.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said it restored power to all of the 6,300 Yolo County customers whose power was cut off at midnight Wednesday, about half of the 51,000 affected in El Dorado County and more than two-thirds of the 52,000 blacked-out Placer County customers. An estimated 1 million-plus Northern and Central Californians had their power restored by early Friday evening.
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.
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.
El Dorado County man dies; 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. Officials have not yet determined a cause of death.
Newsom weighed in on the man’s death, telling reporters at the Capitol: “I hope those responsible are held to account.”
He 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 730,000 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 right now state officials are 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 Chief Executive Bill Johnson defended the blackout strategy amid mounting complaints from residents and state leaders. He apologized as well for the dramatic step, but said the utility felt it needed to take a zero risk approach to starting a fire.
“This is not how we want to serve you; this is not how we want to run our business,” he said late Thursday.
PG&E didn’t offer a timetable on when the remaining customers would get the lights back on, but said more than 6,300 workers and 44 helicopters would inspect the utility’s service territory for damage from the gusting winds that prompted the outages. However, PG&E’s outage map, which had suffered prolonged outages too, indicated restoration would be completed by 11 p.m. Sunday at the latest.
“Customers will be restored once safety patrol, inspections and necessary repairs are complete,” the company said.
PG&E added that it had found 23 cases of damage to its equipment from the high winds, and “the company is working to address those repairs.”