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California utility faces anger, mistrust over power outages: 'It is excessive'

Joseph Serna, Taryn Luna, Jaclyn Cosgrove and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- A massive planned power outage that could affect millions in Northern and Central California is sparking frustration and skepticism in some areas over whether the extreme action is the best way to reduce fire risk.

Pacific Gas & Electric began turning off the power at midnight to an expected 800,000 customers to reduce the risk of wildfires because of windy conditions. Some of California's worst blazes have been sparked by power lines, including last year's Paradise fire and the 2017 wine country fires.

But such a widespread shutdown has some questioning whether PG&E is going too far.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat whose district lies within the blackout area, acknowledged there is a fire danger that requires the shutting down of some power lines, but he called the extent of the possible outage troubling.

"I think it is excessive," said Hill, a longtime critic of the utility. "PG&E clearly hasn't made its system safe. These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical."

Hill, who convened a recent hearing on the Public Utility Commission's oversight of PG&E, called on the state agency to do a "root cause" analysis of the electrical shutdowns.

"This cannot be something that can be acceptable nor long term," Hill said. "This is Third World, and we are not."

At the Ukiah Senior Center in Mendocino County, executive director Diana Clarke also was concerned.

"People have been on pins and needles all day because of the uncertainty," she said. "They don't know if they should go out and buy supplies, and especially with seniors, they don't have a lot of extra money."

There is a deep sense of frustration and skepticism in the community at the idea of losing power to protect against wildfires.

"PG&E should have been doing the proper maintenance for the last decade," Clarke said. "This wouldn't have been necessary (if they had), and I think that's what has got everyone so angry and frustrated with PG&E right now. This is a crisis of PG&E's making."

Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, said PG&E's announcement is a sign of how far the state has fallen behind in efforts to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

"This is the frustrating result of decades of forest mismanagement and aging energy infrastructure," Waldron said. "These shutoffs highlight the need to invest in vegetation management, update our energy grid and help Californians harden their homes against wildfires."

PG&E has defended its decision, though, saying it is acting to prevent a repeat of fatal fires.

Nearly all of California's biggest and most deadly wildfires have occurred in the last 20 years, with many of them being sparked by electrical grid failures.

 

It's that liability that pushed PG&E into bankruptcy this year and has raised concerns that utilities may become more eager to shut off power to avoid potential catastrophe, even when the risk is minimal.

Scores of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of people whose loved ones were killed, whose pets disappeared into the blazing wilderness and who lost everything they owned. They accuse the utility of failing to properly maintain its equipment.

Gov. Gavin Newsom defended PG&E's plans for the intentional power shutdowns.

"The reality is that we want to protect people. We want to make sure people are safe. This is what PG&E thinks is in the best interest of their customers and ultimately for this region and the state," the governor said.

"It is a massive inconvenience," he added. "No one wants to see this happen. But it is a public safety issue."

Even before this week, the power shutoffs generated debate, with some residents saying they create a whole new set of dangers for them as they try to watch for news about potential fires. There is also heightened concern for with health issues who rely on electronic medical equipment to stay alive.

Critics worry that communications and evacuations will be hampered if the power is out, especially if traffic signals don't work and cellphone service is affected.

Once the fire weather subsides, PG&E employees will inspect the grid on-site and electronically before turning the power back on, a company official said.

It took the utility less than a day to restore power to customers during a three-county shutoff last weekend and during another in September, the company said in a statement.

At a news conference Tuesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf expressed concern over PG&E's timeline to restore power but said she was grateful they had been given time to prepare.

"We expect PG&E to do everything to minimize the impact to residents," Schaaf said. "The idea of five days without electricity is devastating. We fully expect that to be a worst-case scenario."

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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