Business & Real Estate

‘Blackout blackmail’ or last resort? PG&E defends Northern California power cut

A wine country innkeeper lost thousands of dollars worth of business from lost diners and guests. A Placerville farm couple had trouble getting water to its livestock because the electric pumps on their wells weren’t operating. A small-town grocery in Lake County was left with a freezer full of spoiled food.

The fire chief in Calistoga — and a prominent consumer advocacy group — said the whole exercise probably wasn’t necessary.

All across Northern California, residents and some officials were grumbling Wednesday about PG&E’s decision to shut off power to reduce wildfire risks as high winds buffeted much of the region earlier in the week.

The utility defended its actions, however, saying the high winds did damage some of its power lines. “Crews found multiple instances where equipment was potentially damaged during the recent weather event,” said Brandi Merlo, a spokeswoman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Merlo couldn’t provide any specific information about the damage.

PG&E shut off power Sunday evening to about 59,000 customers in the first test of its “public safety power shutoff program,” launched in response to last October’s deadly wine country fires. Cal Fire has blamed most of the fires on downed power lines and other problems with PG&E’s equipment, leaving the utility with billions in potential financial liabilities.

PG&E decided to cut power after the National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” for multiple Northern California counties, saying winds could exceed 40 mph.

The utility restored power to about two-thirds of its customers by Monday evening and the rest by late Tuesday, but residents said the outage created hardships. In a posting on the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, Eddi Gilstrap of Rescue said her infant granddaughter was “in jeopardy” because her family’s refrigerator and heater conked out.

With wells shut down, “it was very difficult to get enough water to our livestock,” El Dorado County resident Kathy Smiley said on Facebook.

In Calistoga, a wine country town menaced by last October’s fires, officials had to transport at least one elderly resident to the hospital because a home oxygen machine was put out of commission, said Fire Chief Steve Campbell.

Campbell said the winds in Calistoga weren’t strong enough to justify a power outage.

“I think they did a great job pre-planning it and getting the word out (but) I did not see the weather develop,” Campbell said. “So in my opinion it was not necessary.”

Vice Mayor Michael Dunsford, owner of the Calistoga Inn & Brewery, said he had 100 customers in his restaurant when the building went dark Sunday evening. Including canceled hotel reservations, he said he lost $15,000 worth of revenue by the time power was restored the next evening — for no good reason, in his opinion.

“That evening in downtown Calistoga, the winds hardy existed, it was just a breeze,” Dunsford said. Although he has business interruption insurance, the coverage doesn’t kick in unless the incident lasts at least 72 hours.

PG&E bases its outage decisions on a variety of factors, including red flag warnings, humidity levels and “real-time observations from PG&E field crews,” according to its power shutoff policies.

“The weather conditions fell into our criteria for extreme fire danger,” Merlo said in an email.

It wasn’t clear, however, if any fires were prevented. Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said “any preventative measure is something that we support” but his agency is waiting to see PG&E’s data on damaged power lines. Cal Fire says it asks utilities to shut off power only when a fire is burning.

“Whether or not it prevented fires, I don’t know if anybody can ever prove that,” said Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, whose service territory was affected by the outage. “It’s their option of last resort and I understand why they do it.”

Some officials said PG&E could have done a better job warning people about the outage. Martin said the utility told his department that the shutoff could begin “anywhere from one to 48 hours in advance,” and PG&E officials were unable to provide precise information on where in the county the outage would take place.

He said no one was harmed in Lake County by the outage, but plenty of people were inconvenienced. The main grocery in tiny Kelseyville lost meat and other food, he said, and school closures on Monday will cost the school districts some of their per-pupil funding, which is based on attendance. “The economy up here struggles as it is,” he said.

Merlo said PG&E will review its procedures and examine all complaints about the outage.

The Legislature enacted a controversial law that could shield PG&E and other utilities from liability in future fires if the Public Utilities Commission finds that the utility didn’t act negligently. The law, SB 901, also provides some relief from the impacts of the 2017 fires by directing the PUC to take PG&E’s financial status into account when determining if any of the costs can be passed onto ratepayers.

But the law didn’t provide the kind of blanket protection PG&E had been seeking from the Legislature, and one consumer group suggested that this week’s outage was a form of “blackout blackmail” on the utility’s part.

“The utilities are shutting down power based on a new protocol that is overly broad and driven by a political motive: to get more relief from wildfire liability from the legislature,” the Santa Monica group Consumer Watchdog said in a letter to the PUC. The group demanded an investigation.

Asked about the allegation, Merlo said PG&E’s outage was a “last resort when we feel the weather conditions are most extreme.”

Controversy about planned blackouts isn’t unprecedented. San Diego Gas & Electric cut power to 19,000 customers last December as a wildfire raged in the region. When the fire stopped short of the blackout area, elected officials complained.

The Public Utilities Commission, which has said utilities must prove that shutoffs are “necessary to protect public safety,” found that SDG&E acted reasonably. The commission plans a similar review of the PG&E outage, said commission spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

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