California starting another mass blackout to avoid wildfires

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Parts of California will go dark Wednesday afternoon in a mass blackout that could eventually leave more than a million people without power. And more shutoffs could come over the weekend.

PG&E Corp. will begin cutting power to 179,000 customers in 17 northern and central California counties on Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to keep its power lines from sparking wildfires amid hot, dry winds. In Southern California, Edison International is warning that it may cut service to another 308,000, and Sempra Energy is considering a shutoff in the San Diego area. In all, about 1.5 million people may be affected.

The threat of widespread shutoffs is hitting just two weeks after PG&E carried out the biggest planned blackout in California history, plunging about 2 million people into darkness, knocking out traffic lights and forcing businesses to shut. The outages have ignited a debate over how far California and its utilities are willing to go to avoid catastrophic fires.

PG&E’s cutoffs are scheduled to start around 2 p.m. in the Sierra Foothills, and they are expected to spread into other areas through early Thursday. The worst of the winds are forecast to slow by noon Thursday. Meanwhile, high winds could return over the weekend, and into next week, according to the National Weather Service. PG&E has warned that there’s an “elevated risk” of shutoffs in eight of of its nine geographical zones starting Sunday. It said that storm may prove even bigger and stronger.

“A small shift in the track will make a big difference,” said Spencer Tangen, a weather service meteorologist in Monterey, California. “There is a pretty high threat Saturday night into Sunday and possibly Sunday night into Monday and it is looking like they could be stronger than what we are seeing with this current one.”

The threat of wildfires was listed as critical across the state Wednesday with dry winds set to “ramp up considerably” with Thursday forecast to be the worse day for storms across Southern California, the weather service said.

Edison didn’t say when it may decide on a shutoff Wednesday.

The blackout had one entirely predictable effect: Generac Holdings Inc., which provides back-up generators and saw a spike in demand during the last California blackout, rising as much as 3.7% to a record $90.26.

Other businesses were affected more negatively: Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan Inc. said it’s halting flows on a major fuel line between California and Nevada because of the cuts. The segment will restart when power returns, the Houston-based company said.

The state’s largest power company has been taking more extreme measures to prevent fires since its equipment was identified as the cause of blazes that devastated California in 2017 and 2018. That saddled the utility with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities, forcing it into bankruptcy.

The Camp Fire in November 2018, which killed 86 people and destroyed an entire town, was among the tragedies sparked by power lines.

Once the storm is over, the utility will have to inspect and repair lines before restoring service. It has a goal of returning power to the vast majority of customers within 48 hours of the weather passing — potentially just in time for another wind storm to hit.

Early next week, winds are expected to restrengthen after a relatively mundane weekend as a new front rushes in, according to Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “The threat is going to be there,” Oravec said.

Meanwhile, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said late Tuesday that he didn’t want to get too far ahead “when we’ve got tomorrow to think about.”

The blackout threat has spurred a debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom and the utility over who should make the call on shutoffs. In a letter to Newsom last week, PG&E Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson said California should discuss the idea of a state agency deciding when to carry out widespread outages.

Late Tuesday, Newsom shot down the idea, saying transferring control of the decision-making would be a “bailout” for PG&E.

The PG&E blackout that struck earlier this month drew outrage from residents and state officials who accused the utility of cutting service to more customers than necessary and failing to properly communicate its plans.