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More blackouts hit California. PG&E, bowing to Newsom, says it will compensate customers

Sacramento Bee

Oct. 30--Hundreds of thousands of Northern Californians lost electricity again Tuesday, but Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says it plans to compensate customers for their troubles.

As PG&E instituted another big "public safety power shutoff," the third in less than a week, Chief Executive Bill Johnson, responding to Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the utility plans to offer some form of compensation to show some "recognition" of the hardships customers have endured. The company initially shrugged off Newsom's demand.

The "one-time bill credit" will be applied only to the 738,000 customers affected by the Oct. 9 shutoff, which the company has said it botched by allowing its website to crash and its call center to get overwhelmed. "We did not live up to (customers') expectations when it came to communicating about this event," Johnson said in a statement released by the company late Tuesday.

He added that utilities generally don't compensate customers for blackouts.

With the Kincade Fire still burning in Sonoma County, the latest precautionary blackout was imposed as a fresh blast of dangerous winds increased wildfire risks throughout its service territory. It took roughly 500,000 homes and businesses off the grid -- including tens of thousands who never got their power restored from the last blackout, which began Saturday night. With one blackout bleeding into the next, those customers will have spent five consecutive days without electricity by the time their power is restored, probably Wednesday.

Mark Quinlan, the utility's senior director for emergency preparedness, said it was difficult to say exactly how many customers were affected by the latest blackout because some people were losing power as others were being restored to the grid. Indeed, the winds abated so quickly Tuesday in the upper Sacramento Valley that Quinlan said some customers could be expected to have their power back sometime late Tuesday.

"It's just very, very dynamic," he said.

PG&E meteorologist Scott Strenfel said the utility doesn't plan any more "public safety power shutoffs" for at least another week.

"Although we do not anticipate any rain in the forecast in the next seven to 10 days, we are not anticipating any offshore wind events, which is some good news and I will definitely take it," he said.

Significant winds kicked up Tuesday afternoon, following a 36-hour lull, raising fears that the Kincade Fire could get fresh momentum. Brent Wachter, a fire meteorologist in Redding, said wind gusts could approach 70 mph in the Sonoma mountains Tuesday night.

While the wind speeds weren't expected to match Sunday's, "it's still pretty gusty," Wachter said.

The National Weather Service said its "red flag" warning would remain in effect until 4 p.m. Wednesday. Even though the winds have been slightly tamer, humidity levels have plummeted, keeping fire dangers elevated. The repeated windstorms "further dried out the vegetation, making them more susceptible ... to wildfire," said Brendon Rubin-Oster of the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

PG&E has cut off power three times in the past week as a precaution against wildfires, leaving millions of Californians in the dark. Even so, the company's equipment may have sparked the Kincade Fire last Wednesday night.

In a filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, the utility said a high-voltage transmission line -- which was was still running despite the blackout -- malfunctioned at the spot where the fire ignited. Utility executives said they typically don't shut off transmission lines, which carry bulk power over long distances, because they aren't located close to trees.

Cal Fire hasn't assigned blame yet for the fire, which has burned 75,415 acres and forced 180,000 people to evacuate. Johnson said the transmission tower had been inspected four times since last November's Camp Fire and only a few minor deficiencies were found -- and fixed.

PG&E executives have defended the blackouts as a necessary precaution in an era when climate change is leaving California hotter and drier. Johnson has said it could take 10 years to "harden" the grid so the utility can withstand extreme weather without having to resort to deliberate power outages.

Newsom has continued to blast the company, blaming it for allowing its equipment to deteriorate and dismissing Johnson's argument that fixing the PG&E grid will take a decade.

"Ten years is simply an absurd period of time," the governor said after meeting with Kincade Fire evacuees in Santa Rosa on Monday. "It will not take 10 years to get to a better place in this state."

Hannah Wiley of The Bee's Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.


(c)2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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