Two weeks after a vast power shut-off that it acknowledged it had mishandled, California’s largest utility began cutting electricity to 179,000 customers Wednesday in the face of a new wildfire threat.
The move by the utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, was aimed at areas in the Sierra foothills and in counties north of San Francisco Bay, including Napa and Sonoma. Parts of Kern and San Mateo Counties were scheduled to lose power overnight. The company said that the peak winds should abate by noon Thursday, and that it aimed to restore power to most customers within 48 hours.
PG&E’s equipment has been blamed in the last few years for some of California’s most devastating wildfires, and the power shut-off is meant to reduce the fire hazard.
The blackout strategy, which the utilities use as part of their wildfire prevention programs, is a response to the threat of severe weather conditions that have heightened fire risk across California. The utilities are on alert after two years of large wildfires, when some of the most destructive blazes were caused by utility equipment failures and ultimately killed scores of people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
All three of the state’s investor-owned utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — have warned their customers that the lights could go out in the next few days as high winds blow across California.
The pre-emptive power outages, known as public safety power shut-offs, have increasingly faced criticism from customers as well as the highest levels of state government, after PG&E cut electricity to millions of people two weeks ago in a botched execution of the program. The company apologized for its handling of the blackout, and regulators held an emergency meeting on Friday to compel PG&E executives to explain why communications systems failed, the website crashed and so many went without electricity for days.
Edison said 308,000 customers in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino Counties faced possible power shut-offs, doubling an earlier estimate. It would be the largest shut-off the utility has ever imposed. The company said it had not determined the timing, but the peak fire hazard is expected Thursday.
The estimate sharply increased as forecasts became clearer, said Robert Laffoon-Villegas, an Edison spokesman. “Once you get inside 48 hours, we have a lot more certainty in the weather forecasting,” he said.
San Diego Gas & Electric, which pioneered use of the power shut-off approach, said just under 24,000 customers faced a loss of power in its territory. Each customer represents a home or business, so the total number of people affected is far larger.
The strongest winds over the next two days are expected in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, where gusts could reach 65 miles per hour. Light Santa Ana winds were already being felt Wednesday morning.
Southern California has already fought wildfires in recent weeks. Edison’s equipment is a suspected cause of one of the fires, in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles County.
Conditions in the Napa and Sonoma wine country were expected to resemble those from 2017, when wildfires devastated the region in the first of the two major incidents over the last couple of years, said Suzanne Sims, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“It’s just so dry with relatively low humidity,” Ms. Sims said. “This should wrap up by Friday. But there’s another episode of strong winds by Saturday night and Sunday morning.”
Coordination with local agencies was an issue in the blackout earlier this month, but as Wednesday’s shut-off approached, Noel Brinkerhoff, a spokesman for Napa County, said services provided by PG&E appeared to be operating as they should.
Just under 7,000 PG&E customers in Napa County were expected to lose power there, a fifth of the number without power two weeks ago. PG&E embedded an employee at the Napa County Emergency Operations Center to assist with any concerns.
PG&E began warning customers on Monday of the growing weather threat, making phone calls as well as sending emails and texts to those who might face the next round of blackouts. The utility has taken a more surgical approach to this week’s power shut-offs than it did two weeks ago.
The company has been under scrutiny for its handling of the blackout strategy when it left two million people in the dark Oct. 9 to 12, many without notice. Customers and local governments struggled to get information as PG&E’s website crashed twice and other communications were poorly run.
After the troubles with its website two weeks ago, PG&E created a separate website to provide information about the power shut-offs. But that also ran into problems early Tuesday, shutting down at least once for 45 minutes before workers retored it.
At a news conference on Tuesday night, Bill Johnson, chief executive of PG&E’s parent company, said that the website had since been tested and that he had checked it personally to make sure it worked. “I am keeping an eye on it,” he said, “and it better work.”
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, continued his push this week for PG&E to issue rebates of $100 to residential customers and $250 for small businesses after the utility’s handling of the power shut-off two weeks ago. Mr. Johnson has said PG&E is considering the request.