Late summer and fall in parts of Northern California could be eerily silent and dark as PG&E is preparing us for the potential of week-long blackouts to prevent wildfires.
The bankrupt utility is pivoting to a strategy of extreme caution when it comes to their power lines potentially causing yet another catastrophic fire like ones they caused in 2017 and 2018. And with that comes an email to customers and this public announcement about potential power shutoffs. The criteria for triggering a shutoff, PG&E explains, will include sustained winds above 25 miles per hour, low humidity, abundant dry fuel, and a red-flag warning from the National Weather Service.
PG&E further promises to notify customers by text, phone, and email before a shutoff occurs — allowing up to 48 hours advance notice when possible. But, they say, "Extreme weather threats can change quickly," so early notice may not be possible.
The likeliest locations to experience these shutoffs are shown as Tier 2 and Tier 3 fire danger areas on the map below, produced earlier this year by the California Public Utilities Commission. San Francisco, as you can see, is not among the shaded zones, however PG&E warns that, "Although a customer may not live or work in a high fire-threat area, their power may also be shut off if their community relies upon a line that passes through an area experiencing extreme fire danger conditions. This means that any customer who receives electric service from PG&E should be prepared for a possible public safety power outage."
Customers are being warned to make earthquake-like preparations for extended blackouts of one to seven days. As Curbed noted this week, PG&E already staged a shutoff drill in the town of Orinda, and that city is making preparations to get generators online to keep street lights on, and keep air conditioning on at the community center.
Obviously, a blackout in San Francisco or Oakland would be a far different animal, and doing a shutoff drill in Orinda and getting a few generators is, relatively, child's play.
As the Chronicle reports, members of the state Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee heard testimony Wednesday about the broad-ranging consequences of extended blackouts, including potential impacts on people with disabilities and economic impacts on businesses.
SF's own Sen. Scott Wiener said the were not "nearly enough guardrails in place" for PG&E to make these unilateral decisions. Wiener blasted PG&E for taking a position solely motivated by avoiding its own liability. PG&E VP Sameet Singh said at the hearing, "We don’t look at it that way. We look at it in terms of the risk of ... not de-energizing and potentially causing a catastrophic wildfire."
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also warned the committee of a worst-case scenario for emergency responders and those in ill health, with people unable even to make 911 calls if cellphone towers lose power.
It remains unclear if or how the California legislature plans to regulate or oversee PG&E's power-shutoff actions.