As PG&E Blackouts Ebb, Southern California Wind Risk Surges

By David R. Baker, Mark Chediak and Brian K. Sullivan | October 30, 2019

As Northern California residents began to get their power back, people in the Southern part of the state were facing some of the strongest winds “in recent memory” and utilities there were cutting service and warning blackouts could spread.

PG&E Corp. said early Wednesday it restored power to about 73% of 973,000 customers affected by its Oct. 26 shutoffs. As many as 540,000 customers are facing a new round of blackouts, the utility said. Some lost service amid a windstorm, but most were intentionally cut off so gusts wouldn’t knock down live wires and ignite wildfires. PG&E said in its statement it does not expect another wind event in the next seven days.

Southern California utilities, meanwhile, cut service to more than 45,000 customers Wednesday as that region faced winds that could reach 80 miles (129 kilometers) per hour across parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to the National Weather Service. The utilities warned that about 33,000 customers could lose power as the winds continue to shift south.

“It is really some of the worst conditions for fire-growth behavior in recent memory,” said Bryan Jackson, a forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. “It is a desert wind that is coming across the area. It is a bone-dry desert wind.”

The good news: There’s a chance conditions across California will improve by the weekend, Jackson said by telephone.

PG&E’s shares, up 32% at the end of regular trading Tuesday, jumped by another 16% to $5.83 at 9:43 a.m. in New York trading on Wednesday. As the high risk of more wildfires moved southward in the state, Edison International, the owner of Southern California Edison, slipped 1.4% to $64.50.

PG&E’s rise may have been spurred by optimism that wind and fires are dying down, Bloomberg Intelligence Analyst Kit Konolige said. It also follows by a day an order by the judge overseeing PG&E’s bankruptcy ordering victims of previous wildfires to enter into mediation with the company, a victory for the utility.

PG&E also agreed on Tuesday to issue one-time credits for those affected by an earlier blackout, on Oct. 9, heeding a call from California Governor Gavin Newsom to compensate impacted customers. The utility said it was the “right thing to do” after its website crashed several times leading up to the shutoffs and customers reported long wait times at call centers.

The mass blackout put into place over the past several days is the fourth to hit California this month, igniting a debate over how far the state is willing to go to keep wildfires from erupting amid an increasingly warmer and drier climate. Massive blazes have continued to break out, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate near Los Angeles and in Sonoma County’s wine country.

The state’s utilities are taking increasingly extreme measures to keep their equipment from igniting blazes after a series of devastating fires in 2017 and 2018 were blamed on PG&E power lines. The wildfires saddled the company with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and forced it into bankruptcy.

“These large-scale shutoffs are not the way we want to serve customers — we want these shutoffs to end as bad as anybody,” PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said at a media briefing late Tuesday. “We’re living in extraordinary times here in California.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Edison International in Southern California said its own equipment had been identified as the cause of a 2018 fire that ranks among the most destructive blazes in California history, killing three people and burning parts of Malibu. The company is now warning that over 300,000 customers could lose service as it tries to keep its lines from sparking more fires this week.

Further south in San Diego, Sempra Energy has cut power to nearly 12,000 homes and businesses and warned 29,000 more customers may go dark, too.

The most powerful gusts are forecast to hit Southern California, where the Getty fire has already scorched more than 650 acres, destroyed 12 homes and spurred thousands of evacuations around Los Angeles. The region could see wind speeds of up to 85 miles (137 kilometers) per hour, according to the U.S. Storm Prediction Center. Humidity will plummet.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the Getty blaze was sparked by a tree branch that fell on power lines owned by the city-controlled Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Unlike California’s investor-owned utilities, municipal ones have the ability to set their own rates and recover costs from customers.

Northern California will see less extreme conditions but faces gusts strong enough to fan the flames of wildfires already burning.

PG&E has already disclosed that its equipment may have sparked two small blazes in the San Francisco area. The Kincade fire in Sonoma County was reported minutes after a PG&E line in the area malfunctioned. It has burned more than 76,000 acres, destroyed almost 200 structures — nearly half of them homes — and forced 130,000 people to evacuate.

Firefighters have not determined the cause of the blazes.

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