New PG&E blackouts: Up to 600,000 to lose power Tuesday in Northern California

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Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will shut the lights off again early Tuesday to as many as 600,000 homes and business across Northern California, the third deliberate blackout in less than a week as the beleaguered utility tries to cope with high winds and dangerous wildfire conditions.

The utility outlined details of its latest blackout as it was scrambling to restore service to the nearly 1 million customers who were shut off late Saturday as a wildfire precaution. By Monday evening, PG&E had restored power to more than 375,000 of the 970,000 customers who were affected by Saturday’s blackout.

The utility warned that some customers might not get their power back by the time the next “public safety power shutoff” begins. Prompted by forecasts of another round of dry, fierce winds, the blackout is tentatively scheduled for 8 or 9 a.m. Tuesday and is expected to last through mid-day Wednesday. The first area to get blacked out will be the upper Sacramento Valley.

Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s senior director of emergency preparedness, said the number of customers blacked out Tuesday could be as low as 240,000, depending on the condition of a pair of crucial high-voltage transmission lines that deliver power to much of the North Coast and North Bay. The transmission lines were shut down Saturday but needed to be inspected for possible wind damage before they could be brought back online, Quinlan said.

Nearly 30 California counties could lose power

The power outage could affect parts of 29 counties: Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Humboldt, Kern, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Tehama, Trinity, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba.

Sacramento, served by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, won’t be affected.

The National Weather Service issued another red flag warning effective 8 a.m. Tuesday, saying wind gusts of 60 mph or more can be expected. Comparable winds Sunday pushed the Kincade Fire deeper into Sonoma County, where as many as 190,000 people had to evacuate.

Quinlan said the utility has found 50 cases of damage to its equipment — “wires down, poles down” — from the weekend’s windstorms.

“Any one incident can be a catastrophic wildfire,” said the utility’s president Andy Vesey, defending the most recent blackout. “We continue to think it’s the right thing to do.”

The lull in the winds Monday allowed some evacuees to return home and cleared PG&E to step up its power restorations, which had begun late Sunday in the northern fringes of the company’s territory. The company pledged to restore as many customers as possible before the next blackout starts.

Even so, an increasingly irate Gov. Gavin Newsom continued to criticize the blackouts, and he and Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer announced an immediate investigation into how PG&E is handle the power outages. Newsom said the PUC could fine the company $100,000 a day for any violations of procedures.

While the blackouts are designed to improve safety, Newsom suggested they’ve merely intensified Californians’ fears.

“The backdrop of this moment is exacerbated by these shutoffs,” he said at a press conference at the Office of Emergency Services’ command center east of Sacramento.

The governor also said he was looking at possible legal options for requiring PG&E to compensate customers for the blackouts. So far the company has shrugged off his demands.

PG&E’s relationship with Newsom has grown increasingly difficult as the blackouts and fires continue. Investors have been dumping PG&E stock after the company disclosed that a transmission line malfunctioned in the spot where the Kincade Fire began. Cal Fire hasn’t assigned blame for the fire, which has burned more than 66,000 acres.

PG&E equipment may have started 2 fires

On Monday, PG&E also reported that its equipment may be connected to a pair of small fires in Lafayette over the weekend.

PG&E was already in bankruptcy because of the billions in liabilities it faces over the 2017 wine country fires and last November’s Camp Fire in Butte County. If PG&E is ultimately blamed for the Kincade Fire, it could seriously undermine PG&E’s ability to successfully reorganize its finances and get out of bankruptcy.

PG&E’s “public safety power shutoff” program has become increasingly controversial as they’ve increased in size and frequency. The blackout that began Saturday night was the largest yet, affecting customers in parts of 36 counties. More than 2 million people were shut off, representing nearly one-fifth of PG&E’s customer base.

The utility said it deployed 6,000 field workers and 45 helicopters Monday in a furious effort to bring power back on. PG&E said it brought on board 129 additional personnel from five other utilities, including one in Florida, to support the effort.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.