Why the Bay Area Is Having a Massive Power Outage

In an effort to avoid sparking deadly wildfires—and to protect itself from future liability—California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) shut off power to much of the Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon. The cause: high winds that were forecast to rake the region in gusts of up to 70 mph on Thursday. To preemptively reduce the chance of a downed line sparking a blaze, an estimated 800,000 utility customers in 34 Northern California cities like Berkeley, San Jose, Chico, and parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills will have their electricity service cut off over the next few days.

The most urbanized parts of the region, like downtown San Francisco and parts of Oakland, should be mostly untouched, but the scope of the disruption is massive: 800,000 utility customers translates to about 2.4 million individuals who stand to be left in the dark. The first 500,000 customers—many concentrated in West Marin County near Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais, the dry hills of Lake County, and wine-country counties like Napa and Sonoma—lost power on Wednesday.

(Map courtesy of Mercury News)

“We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.

PG&E began the practice of preemptively shutting off its electricity grid during high-risk periods in 2018, after the utility’s fragile and poorly maintained power lines, surrounded by untrimmed trees, helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. More than 80 people were killed in the wildfire, and thousands of homes turned to ash.

Over the past year, four similar planned safety outages were held, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the PG&E shutdown. But those affected primarily Napa and Sonoma counties, and lasted only about 24 hours at a time. In 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric became the first California utility to cut power during dry conditions, according to the Wall Street Journal; its largest shut-off only affected about 20,800 people.

This Bay Area outage will be much longer: PG&E estimates some areas will be without electricity for up to five days. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told reporters he encouraged residents and businesses to prepare for up to seven. Even after the high winds dissipate, utility workers must inspect each power line, ensuring it isn’t broken or left on the ground, before turning it back on. (Gas service will not be affected, PG&E said.)

“The worst nightmare would be if you started a fire by turning on the power,” said Toney.

The historic safety shutdown is proceeding as PG&E is dealing with the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. After the Paradise tragedy and other recent safety mishaps (in 2016, for example, a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people), the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into PG&E’s liability last year, threatening to break the company up or have the public take it over. On the hook for an estimated $30 billion in wildfire damages, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. Late on Wednesday, amid the first night of blackouts, a judge stripped the company of exclusive control over its restructuring.

But in taking this unprecedented move to reduce the threat of a fire crisis, the embattled utility may be creating another, man-made one. Classes at many local universities and schools were canceled on Wednesday. Mothers are scrambling to save their breast milk. Wine shops are looking for ways to chill their stashes. Grocery stores are reporting shortages of supplies like batteries and water; fresh food could be left rotting on the shelves by the time the week is over.

Mobility is also being affected. Bay Area Rapid Transit trains are up and running, but with traffic signals out, vehicle travel is dicey. (PG&E tweeted that cars should be treating all traffic lights as four-way stops.) A blackout hit the Robin Williams Tunnel in Marin County on Wednesday afternoon, but traffic was still circulating through. Caltrans employees worked through the night to get the generators set up in Caldecott Tunnel, which connects hundreds of thousands of commuters into the East Bay, avoiding potentially crippling jams.

Residents who are disabled, or who depend on power to charge medical devices, refrigerate diabetes medication, and run oxygen machines, are most at risk in an outage like this, said Diana Hernandez, a Columbia University assistant professor who studies issues related to energy justice—how the vulnerable communities that shoulder the burden of producing energy face barriers to accessing it. While hospitals in the blackout zones have generators running, many outpatient clinics and urgent care facilities don’t.

“Ultimately, people have worse health outcomes” during a blackout, she said. “In the worst kind of situations, they may die.”

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