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Yes, PG&E will shut off power to Bay Area neighborhoods again this year

Once again, the North Bay will be the most vulnerable in 2020

A massive corner substation building, a low, gray cement building behind a black fence. Photo by Beyond My Ken

After Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) left hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents in the dark last year, will the troubled utility company do it again?

The answer is yes, according to a new wildfire safety plan that PG&E filed with California last week. Although now that the company is in the hot seat over the policy—in which it intentionally instigates blackouts of areas where it fears broken or malfunctioning equipment could spark fires—PG&E claims the rounds of blackouts won’t be as bad in 2020.

Last year, out of nine blackouts, the largest, which happened in October, affected 969,000 households across the state; the power stayed out for an average of 55 hours.

The company’s filings now admit that the policy “taught PG&E some difficult lessons” and that long shutoffs were “highly disruptive for our customers.” (Oh you noticed that too, huh?)

This year the utility claims that it’s taking extra measures, like contracting up to 65 helicopters and outfitting aircrafts with night-vision cameras to conduct power line inspections at night.

The company will also defer to more sensitive meteorological methods to make blackouts shorter, pledging to turn power back on for almost everyone at most 12 hours after winds die down, as opposed to several days.

The company also says that it has done more vegetation pruning around equipment, as well conducting more inspections, which will supposedly result in “smarter, smaller, and shorter public safety power shutoffs.”

But the bottom line is still that Bay Area cities can expect to go powerless again at some point later this year. The company’s wildfire safety page warns that any PG&E customer can be rendered without service for “several hours or days.”

San Francisco was spared any such action last year, while most Bay Area counties went dark.

This year’s plan notes that “the relative frequency of these events is higher in the North Bay Area” than anywhere else in the region; North Bay residents can expect to get the brunt of the darkness again this year.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Scott Wiener introduced legislation that would turn PG&E into a public state-run company, the latest in a series of moves by various public officeholders to break the utility’s private power monopoly, in large part in response to the blackouts.

“The ham-handed, damaging mass blackouts it levied last year only serve to underscore how broken PG&E is,” said Wiener. PG&E President Bill Johnson continues to defend the shutoffs as a necessary safety measure.