One Massive Blackout Is Over, Now California Braces for the Next

By Lynn Doan, Mark Chediak and Hailey Waller | October 14, 2019

An unprecedented blackout that plunged millions of Californians into the darkness for days is over.

And nobody can say when the next will hit.

Even as PG&E Corp. declared an end to last week’s shutoffs — a deliberate move to keep its power lines from sparking the kind of blazes that forced the utility into bankruptcy — the company warned that more will come. “It’s a future we must be ready for given the conditions and risks that we face,” Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson told reporters.

California has six weeks left in the wildfire season — a time punctuated by dry, hot weather and high winds that have for years been the fuel for deadly and devastating blazes. While both PG&E and California state officials alike acknowledged that the shutoffs that began on Wednesday could have been better orchestrated, neither questioned their need.

Climate change has made for more extreme conditions. In November 2018, a PG&E power line sparked the deadliest blaze in California history. And a year earlier, a series of wildfires devastated the state’s wine country. That, state and company officials said, necessitates more extreme measures.

Mother Nature’s Call

By Friday, PG&E had restored power to 97% of those affected by the blackouts. On Sunday, 100% of customers had their lights back on. In all, roughly 738,000 homes and businesses went down in cities surrounding San Francisco. More than half of the state’s 58 counties were affected. When they’ll go dark again is Mother Nature’s call, Johnson said. “It really is weather-dependent — where the wind is, where the conditions are.”

Even as the lights flickered back on, California firefighters were battling several infernos in Southern California. One that began in the hills north of the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles area — now called the Saddleridge fire — had burned about 8,000 acres as of Sunday and was less than 50% contained, destroying or damaging 32 structures. Another at the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains had scorched more than 5,500 acres.

The Los Angeles Fire Department was still investigating the cause of the Saddlebridge fire. Sparks were reported at a transmission tower owned by Edison International’s Southern California Edison utility, but fire officials said it would take at least a week for them to come up with any substantial findings. Edison said in a statement Sunday that it would “fully cooperate with investigations.”

The impact on Edison is expected to be minimal, according Citigroup Inc. analysts including Praful Mehta said in a report over the weekend. The utility has $750 million in wildfire insurance and now has the backing of a statewide wildfire insurance fund, they said. Investor concerns over the Saddleridge fire sent the stock sliding 3.9% on Oct. 11, the biggest weekly decline in more than four months.

Undervalued Stock

Back in Northern California, PG&E said it had found 50 instances of weather-related damage in the course of inspecting lines following high winds. “There’s some vindication — that’s not the right word,” Johnson said late Friday, but the fact that the utility discovered so many safety issues that could have ignited a wildfire made the blackout well worth it, he said.

Johnson promised better communication going forward. For days, both ahead of the blackout and during it, the company’s website was down, overwhelmed by people trying to find out whether they would be cut off and for how long. Call centers were similarly flooded. Text messages to homes and businesses affected were few and far between.

The operational act of turning off and on power actually “went really well,” Johnson said. But he committed to better notifications, more phone alerts, shorter call wait times and a website “that works no matter how much traffic is on it.”

California officials will have their own say on what more should be done. Governor Gavin Newsom has blasted PG&E over the shutoffs, saying the company should have been more surgical — and never would’ve been in this situation if it had invested in its infrastructure more heavily. He also called on state utility regulators to review PG&E’s actions.

A spokeswoman for the California Public Utilities Commission said the agency, as a policy, reviewed all intentional outages by California utilities. PG&E said it will file a report with the agency detailing the damages it discovered.

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