This weekend’s planned power outages could be the largest yet in California, as utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison order wide blackouts to prevent more blazes — and more wildfire liability — amid heavy, hot winds.
PG&E, which has 5.4 million electric customers and provides power to 16 million Californians, was projecting Thursday that it could shut off power across nearly all of its territory in Northern California on Sunday and Monday because of ferocious gusts.
“This system will likely be the strongest event of the year from a wind perspective,” the utility said on its website. “Federal forecast agencies are in alignment that this will be a high-risk weather event.”
Edison customers could face continued power shutoffs — or new ones — because of the weather forecast.
The utility said it will know more by Friday afternoon, but there was the possibility that about 380,000 customers across six counties in Southern California would have their electricity cut off Sunday afternoon.
The bulk of the customers who could be left in the dark were in Ventura, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, with Orange, Riverside and Kern counties also facing additional time without power.
About 27,000 customers remained without electricity as of late Thursday afternoon in the Edison service area.
“Given the wildfire situation that we’ve already seen, the concern about catastrophic fires is real,” Edison spokesman Robert Villegas said. “We can’t sugarcoat the fact there is a possibility of something catastrophic happening. And if we need to do it for public safety, we are going to shut the power off.”
Although designed to protect the public, California’s intentional power outages have outraged millions of people, including those subjected to fire evacuations and power outages simultaneously, as in Sonoma County on Thursday.
“They shut off the power and we still had a fire,” Madonna Tavares, 70, of Geyserville said. “I don’t understand it.”
State leaders have blasted PG&E — which blacked out about 750,000 customers in northern and central California starting on Oct. 9 — for not being more selective with its power outages. The utility’s outages this week have been far smaller, affecting only 179,000 customers. But this weekend could swing wildly in the other direction, illustrating the unpredictability of weather conditions and electrical power decisions, both of which are out of the control of frustrated state politicians.
At a news conference Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom again criticized PG&E and other utilities for not making prior investments to systems in the faces of climate change and mounting wildfire threats. He said PG&E must be held accountable.
“This is unacceptable,” said Newsom, who faces political risks from the continuing power outages. “Issues of corporate greed meeting issues of climate change have created these conditions.”
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January, largely because of liabilities it faced from causing past fires. On Thursday, the utility told state regulators that one of its transmission lines had problems Wednesday night around the area where a massive Sonoma County fire broke out.
At a news conference Thursday night, company officials said the potential area for this weekend’s outages could be as broad as the one that put millions in the dark in early October and could start as early as Saturday evening. PG&E President and Chief Executive Bill Johnson added there was “elevated potential” the shut-off could last longer than the outage that started Oct. 8.
The upcoming blackouts could affect eight of PG&E’s nine service areas — stretching from Humboldt County in the north, to the north end of San Francisco Bay, the San Francisco Peninsula, East Bay and Central Coast.
“We do think it will be the strongest offshore wind event this season by a large margin and, if models are correct, possibly the strongest offshore event we have seen in years,” said Scott Strenfel, principal meteorologist for PG&E, the state’s largest utility.
Times staff writers Colleen Shalby and Phil Willon contributed to this report.
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