SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — More than 1.5 million people in Northern California were in the dark Thursday, most for a second day, after the state’s largest utility cut off electricity to more customers to prevent wind-fueled wildfires amid dry weather and strong winds sweeping through the region.
Pacific Gas and Electric cut power to more than 300,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area late Wednesday night, where forecasters say wind gusts reached speeds of 70 mph early Thursday on some hills.
Also, PG&E’s stock prices fell nearly 30% Thursday as the blackouts rolled throughout California. According to some reports, a factor in this drop could be the decision of a judge presiding over the utility’s bankruptcy that could open the way for an alternative restructuring plan.
This decision means PG&E has lost exclusive control over its own bankruptcy reorganization and other parties, such as Elliott Management Corp. and Pacific Investment Management can submit their own plans for how the utility will deal with its around $30 billion in wildfire liabilities.
PG&E shares were down 29.49% to a price of $3.24 per share and $7.74 in Thursday trading. In the meantime, the utility is fighting to prevent another costly and destructive set of wildfires as winds sweep across the Golden State.
More than 1 million people lost power earlier Wednesday after the utility shut off power in wine country north of San Francisco, the agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills, where a November wildfire blamed on PG&E transmission lines killed 85 people and virtually incinerated the town of Paradise.
The unpopular move by PG&E that disrupted daily life was prompted by weather forecasts creating extreme wildfire danger and came after catastrophic fires sent the utility into bankruptcy and forced it to take more aggressive steps to prevent blazes. The city of San Francisco itself is not in the power cutoff zone.
Overall, about 734,000 customers and as many as 2 million people could be affected. PG&E has warned that they might have to do without power for days after the winds subside because “every inch” of the power system must be inspected by helicopters and thousands of groundworkers and declared safe before the grid is reactivated.
There was some good news. PG&E also announced that by reconfiguring its power system, it had restored electricity to 44,000 customers who weren’t in areas of high fire risk, and it could bring back power to 60,000 to 80,000 customers in the Humboldt area, where gusty winds had subsided.
Also because of shifting forecasts, the utility said it was reducing the third phase of its blackout plan, set to begin Thursday, to only about 4,600 customers in Kern County — one-tenth of the original estimate.
Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented blackouts sparked anger. A customer threw eggs at a PG&E office in Oroville. A PG&E truck was hit by a bullet that shattered a window in Colusa County before Wednesday’s outages, although authorities couldn’t immediately say whether it was targeted. PG&E put up barricades around its San Francisco headquarters.
“We realize and understand the impact and the hardship” from the outages, said Sumeet Singh, head of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program. But he urged people not to take it out on PG&E workers.
PG&E took drastic action because of hot, dry Diablo winds sweeping into Northern California, said Scott Strenfel, PG&E’s principal meteorologist. They were also part of a California-wide weather system that will produce Santa Ana winds in the south in the next day or so, he said.
Southern California Edison warned that it might cut power to nearly 174,000 customers in nine counties, including Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. San Diego Gas & Electric has notified about 30,000 customers they could lose power in back-country areas.
While many people said the blackouts were a necessity, others were outraged — the word that Gov. Gavin Newsom used in arguing that PG&E should have been working on making its power system sturdier and more weather-proof.
“They’re in bankruptcy due to their terrible management going back decades,” Newsom said in San Diego. “They’ve created these conditions. It was unnecessary.”