PG&E Corp. warned it will shut off power again on Saturday to as many as 2.5 million people as violent winds batter the state — in what will be California’s largest intentional blackout ever.
The outages will impact up to 850,000 homes and businesses in Northern California, including parts of Oakland, Berkeley and other cities, PG&E said in a statement Friday. With wind gusts up to 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour forecast through Monday, much of the region could be without power for days. San Francisco, however, will be spared.
“The upcoming wind event has the potential to be one of the strongest in the last several years,” PG&E’s principal meteorologist Scott Strenfel said in the statement.
It will be the third time this month PG&E has resorted to massive outages to prevent its power lines
PG&E expects the high winds to arrive between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. local time Saturday. The blackout may last until midday Monday, the company said. PG&E said it has not yet made a definite decision whether it will cut power.
Despite the recent outages, wildfires are raging at both ends of California, prompting Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency Friday. Near Los Angeles, blazes have prompted authorities to order 40,000 evacuations. And north of San Francisco, a blaze is raging amid the vineyards of Sonoma County.
The Sonoma County fire began minutes after a PG&E transmission line in the area malfunctioned late Wednesday. While the company had shut down distribution lines to homes and businesses in the area before the flames began, the transmission line was still energized. Firefighters have not determined the cause of the blaze.
As the fire spread, PG&E’s shares plummeted 31% Friday to $5.00, a record low. Shares of Edison International fell 8.5%, the most in 11 months, as fires burned in its service territory in Southern California.
While many of the fires are burning open hillsides and scrub lands, others threaten populated areas. All told, there’s about $12 billion worth of property within a mile of the active fires, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler with Enki Research.
The prospect of more liabilities from wildfires is especially vexing for PG&E. Since filing for Chapter 11 in January, the judge overseeing the case has warned that another big blaze would upend the utility’s bankruptcy and potentially wipe out shareholders. Any claims from new fires sparked by PG&E would have to be paid out first — and in full — before those from previous blazes get a dime.
California’s other major utilities — Edison International’s Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric — have conducted smaller outages of their own.
This winds arrive at a precarious moment. California receives almost no rain during its summer, and a five-year drought earlier this decade killed millions of trees that can now easily ignite. And recent winds have dried out grasses and shrubs even further.
Utilities in Southern California are cutting power, too. Both Edison and Sempra Energy, which serves the San Diego area, had about 20,000 homes and businesses without electricity Friday afternoon.
California’s winds won’t end this this weekend. Another weather front is expected to move through Tuesday, bringing strong, dry winds and once again raising the risk of wildfires spreading uncontrollably.