Why PG&E Shut Off Power in California to Prevent Fires

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company is a large electric provider for northern California. The utility began to shut off the power to over 800,000 customers in early October to prevent power lines from sparking potential wildfires.

Utilities count each account as a customer, including residential and business locations. That means the number of people impacted is more than 1 million. 

This action was taken as a public safety measure that the company implemented over two phases. It impacted businesses and residences in high-risk areas over 34 counties. Some of the outages lasted for days.

It wasn’t just rural areas that felt the impacts of these blackouts. Parts of Oakland, San Jose, and Berkeley were part of PG&E’s plans.

PG&E Urged Customers to Stock Up on Supplies

Officials from the utility said that there would be no compensation given to companies for lost profits or homeowners who lose food due to spoilage.

The reason for this extreme measure is that PG&E acknowledged in 2018 that its equipment was likely responsible for the devastating Camp Fire. That event destroyed thousands of structures, killed 85 people, and is the most destructive and deadliest fire in the history of California.

PG&E is the largest electricity utility. It filed for bankruptcy protection in January because it faced an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities. That figure was cut by two-thirds with a 2019 filing with securities regulators in May, but the number was still higher than $10 billion.

Even if the shutoff is a good thing that can prevent wildfires, customers are going to find themselves managing new expenses one way or another. Businesses would need to purchase a backup generator that could operate to continue serving customers. Residential customers would need to stock non-perishable items more often with their grocery runs or use a generator to prevent losses.

Are Public Safety Shutoffs Necessary?

Weather events in California can create wildfire triggers in a variety of ways. Strong Santa Ana winds or onshore flows can create gusts that rival hurricane-strength winds. Having utility equipment spark during these incidents can quickly cause a fire to burn when conditions are arid.

PG&E is not the only utility in California to contemplate safety shutoffs because of the weather events that happen during the late summer and early fall. Southern California Edison announced that it was also working on plans that would shut off electricity to over 106,000 customers in parts of eight counties – including the Los Angeles area.

The utility even employs a meteorologist to help them plan for these challenging weather events that might require the power to be shut off to protect structures. 

Turning off the power is always a difficult decision to make. Communities rely on electricity to manage their homes, employment, and more. 

It is an action that becomes a critical balancing act. Having access to power is worthless if it sparks a fire that burns down a home or business. Customers can lose their business without electricity, which might cause them to miss their mortgage payment.

Most customers only have 24 hour notice before a public safety shutoff occurs.