From San Francisco nerve center, PG&E directs historic Northern California power shutdown

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SAN FRANCISCO — Deep in the bowels of PG&E headquarters in downtown San Francisco, the utility’s emergency operations center Wednesday hummed as about 100 people working in four teams wearing different colored vests orchestrated the most extensive planned power shutdown in California history.

On a map of the vast region projected on one wall, squiggly white arrows cascaded across roughly half of the state, depicting the wide reach of fierce Diablo winds bringing hot and dry air from the northeast forecast to begin pummeling the region about 5 p.m.

The winds combined with the state’s dry climate pose a dangerous threat to nearly 25,000 miles of PG&E distribution lines and 2,500 miles of high-powered transmission lines, said Aaron Johnson, a vice president of PG&E’s electrical operations.

“Our system is designed to handle high winds, but it’s not built to withstand the force of a falling tree,” Johnson said.

Command central for the utility’s unprecedented preemptive power shutdown, expected to include more than a million customers in Northern California, is centered in San Francisco County — the only Bay Area county unaffected by a blackout PG&E officials warned could linger five days.

The massive shutdown comes on the heels of two seasons of record-breaking and deadly wildfires that started in October 2017 when blazes broke out across Northern California, many igniting when winds whipped tree limbs into PG&E power lines. The widespread damage was followed by the historic destruction by the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County that was sparked by a PG&E transmission tower. After two years of devastating infernos and an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities, in January California’s largest utility sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors.

Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. initiated its first planned power shutdown, a tactic to avoid electricity-sparked fires that’s been used in Southern California for years. This year, the utility significantly broadened the scope of preemptive power shut-offs to try to curtail fire risks.

But critics of this week’s colossal shutdown have lambasted the utility for taking overly extreme measures to head off liabilities from another major fire, needlessly putting millions of people in the dark.

Johnson said PG&E officials weighed the risks of leaving the power on given the high risk of wind whipping vegetation into power lines with the serious consequences a blackout brings to individuals. Utility officials decided the weather forecast was serious enough to warrant the extreme fire safety action the company is undertaking, the said.

“This is not something we take lightly,” Johnson said of the vast blackout. “But it’s the right thing to do to keep everyone safe.”

On Wednesday morning, the power already was turned off for more than 500,000 customers in 22 counties and utility workers were preparing to cut power to another 243,000 customers outside Sonoma County in the afternoon. A customer can be a household, business or public agency.

The advance timing of the shutdown is crucial, Johnson said.

Working at about a dozen computers in the utility’s San Francisco operations center, staff were split in teams. Workers in red vests managed planning and intelligence critical to the power shutdown. Blue-vested staff focused on electrical system operations with the yellow team coordinating logistics. Staff in white vests were communicating with local governments in nearly two dozen counties.

The intelligence team included meteorologists from the utility’s new wildfire safety operations center, a full-time operation established earlier this year that keeps constant watch over weather conditions and other risks to the power grid.

PG&E’s emergency operations center is designed like those well-established emergency management systems used by local governments and other public agencies, a company spokeswoman said. They have been used for many years, but this is the seventh time the PG&E emergency center was activated to manage a public power shutdown.

This year the public safety power shutdown has become a key part of PG&E’s wildfire prevention plan that is also augmenting its focus on clearing vegetation from lines and hardening its power grid.

The utility has an army of about 5,000 personnel positioned throughout its service territory ready to help restore power beginning Thursday, including vegetation removal crews and technical teams ready to repair any damage to the power grid.

Johnson said teams are assigned a particular circuit, which could cover anything from a 20-mile area up to a 100-mile section. Over the summer, they ran practice drills to ensure they know how to access all of the utility’s power lines, either by air, by truck, off-road vehicle or on foot.

Air crews manning 24 helicopters are poised to begin inspecting PG&E’s power lines and other equipment to look for damage and to dispatch crews to make repairs.

They will deploy a combination of fast-moving roving patrols looking for signs of significant damage to power equipment and other teams conducting the slow, methodical inspections of transmission and distribution lines.

None of that can begin until the winds, expected to be the strongest Wednesday night through dawn Thursday, die down. That means the long work of restoring power may not begin until midday Thursday and could take five days to complete.

“We’re throwing in everything we can to get the lights back on as soon as possible,” Johnson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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