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PG&E shutdown: 800,000 people to lose power to prevent California wildfires

  • Oct 9, 2019
Guardian Web

A California utility has announced it will shut off power to more than 800,000 customers in an effort to prevent new wildfires, in the largest preventive outage in state history.

With windy, dry weather in the forecast and warnings of extreme fire danger, Pacific Gas & Electric utility said it will start turning off power to 34 counties in northern and central California after midnight Wednesday.

It may take several days to fully restore power, Michael Lewis, senior vice-president of PG&E’s electric operations, said in a statement.

Separately, the Southern California Edison utility website said more than 106,000 of its customers in parts of eight counties could face power cuts.

The affected regions include an area of wine country north of San Francisco where several fires two years ago killed 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

On the second anniversary of the disaster, survivors of those fires said they were poised to lose the insurance coverage that allowed them to pay for temporary housing while they waited out the rebuilding process of their new homes.

In the Santa Rosa area – which was heavily affected by the fires – only 20% of reconstruction has been completed while 62.5% is still in process.

The outages will also affect portions of the agricultural Central Valley, the state’s northern and central coasts and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and devastated the town of Paradise.

In Butte County, where Paradise is located, people lined up at gas stations Tuesday morning to fill up their cars and portable containers with fuel for generators. They also rushed to stores to buy flashlights, ice chests and batteries.

San Francisco is the only county in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area where power will not be affected.

Some of California’s most destructive blazes in recent years were started by PG&E power lines. This year, the company agreed to pay billions of dollars to a group of insurance companies representing claimants from deadly northern California wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

But the potential outages will not be limited to fire-prone areas because the utilities must turn off entire distribution and transmission lines to much wider areas to minimize the risk of wildfires.

The California department of forestry and fire prevention said it had increased staffing in preparation for extreme fire weather and what was expected to be the strongest wind event so far this fire season.

“With some of the most destructive and deadliest fires occurring October through December, we need Californians to not be complacent,” said the Cal Fire chief, Thom Porter, in a news release. “Residents need to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice in the event of a wildfire.”

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William Buchan's picture
William Buchan on Oct 10, 2019

With nearly a million people having their power cutoff as a safety measure in Northern and Central California over the last 36 hours, it is important for we as a society to recognize that today's centralized grid is part of the problem.   Many had their power shutoff because distant transmission lines carrying power for them were threatened, not because their community was experiencing high winds and potential damage to their local power lines.  Nature is will always have an impact of power lines.  But with a large interconnected grid, one affected critical can wreak havoc for millions of people, maximizing the negative impact.   What we need is a distributed grid each with its own sustainable energy.   We have the ability to set-up self-contained microgrids to island communities from the larger grid.  By setting up distributed grid, we can minimize the impact from nature to just the smaller, directly impacted areas, creating greater resiliency for society as a whole.

Start-ups with new technologies are now scaling up to enable microgrids and larger distributed grids a reality.  The states of New York and California have and continue to issue grants for demonstrations in this arena.  For example, new technologies now allow the management of data and power flows in a microgrid setting, enable large building to be turned into clean power plants, and storage of renewable energy at ever decreasing costs.   We need to continue developing, demonstrating, and implementing these technologies toward a more resilient, clean distributed grid.


William H. Buchan, P.E.

CEO, Market Potential, Inc.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 10, 2019

I think you're right, William, that times like this one with PG&E is a key aspect to highlight the value that microgrids can add to energy reliability. And to be clear, microgrids aren't replacing the centralized grid system, but supplementing and supporting it. 

Can you talk about what you think would be the biggest hurdle towards getting Northern and Central CA (since they're the ones highlighted in the news of the day) set up to have microgrids provide this bit of pressure relief and prevent future power cutoffs?

William Buchan's picture
William Buchan on Oct 11, 2019

Great question, Matt.  There are a few hurdles that California must conquer before we have distributed grid supported by clean, local power all over the state.  So calling out the single biggest hurdle is a bit tough.  While we don't yet have the infrastructure for this, the state is well on its way.  CAISO is seriously considering establishing a DSO model and their are several Community Choice Aggregation (CCAs) operating in that state that could evolve into DSO territories.  Second, California does not currently generate enough renewable energy through the day every day of the year, so purchasing renewaable energy from outside the state is regularly done by CCAs and utilities.  But I think this could change easily if we could manage all the renewable energy we need, the third necessary prong.  We cannot do this today at scale, as the storage capacity for intermittent renewable power (solar, wind, or hydro) is not in place.  The energy management tools to manage renewable energy on a realt-time or near real-time basis are also not in place at this time.  The good news is that technologies for storage and near real-time management of energy are available and being commercialized now.   So I think the ability to manage 100% renewable  energy in a microgrid or larger distributed grid is the biggest hurdle.  Solving this problem will allow further implementation of the infrastructure and create a greater demand for renewables that is otherwise more difficult to support at this time.  I know our regulators are thinking about this critically. With the recent PG&E safety power shutdown event, we cannot get to these distributed grid solutions soon enough!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 11, 2019

Love all the optimism, William, and thanks for the reply. 

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