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Unprecedented California Blackout Ending as PG&E Restores Power

Mark Chediak
Unprecedented California Blackout Ending as PG&E Restores Power

(Bloomberg) -- Californians are emerging from an unprecedented blackout that plunged millions into darkness this week as utility giant PG&E Corp. tried to keep its power lines from igniting catastrophic wildfires.

PG&E has restored power to 228,000, or 31%, of customers in parts of the San Francisco Bay Area after high winds died down and inspections and repairs were complete, Vice President Sumeet Singh said during a press briefing. More than 100,000 had already regained service earlier Thursday. About 510,000 were still without power.

The restoration marks the beginning of the end to the biggest blackout a utility has ever orchestrated to keep high winds from knocking down electrical lines and igniting devastating blazes. In all, as many as 800,000 homes and businesses in dozens of cities surrounding San Francisco lost power, amounting to more than 2 million people and potentially costing the California economy as much as $2.6 billion.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson, in his first public statement since the outages began, apologized for the hardship and said it was needed for safety. His comments came after California’s governor on Thursday evening expressed frustration with the blackouts.

Johnson added the utility determined it must have “zero risk” of spark and that it’s “very likely” PG&E will need to cut power in future.

After being forced into bankruptcy from wildfires its equipment caused over the past two years, PG&E used the massive power cuts in an attempt to prevent another deadly disaster. While San Francisco and most of Silicon Valley were spared, the extensive reach of the outages in Oakland, San Jose and elsewhere roiled the area’s economy by disrupting workers, shutting stores and forcing companies and agencies to shell out for costly back-up generators to keep operations limping along.

In Oakland, long strips of banks, pharmacies, delis, coffee shops and other businesses closed Thursday. Trucks arrived on Thursday morning to deliver boxes of fresh seafood to restaurants that had nowhere to store them. Wells Fargo had shuttered some branches as of Wednesday, and a few dozen Safeway supermarkets were affected, with the company supplying backup generators and refrigerated trailers upon availability.

In Southern California, Edison International had also cut power to tens of thousands of customers in counties including Los Angeles and Kern. San Diego’s main utility is also considering cutoffs. Altogether, more than 3 million people were at risk of being affected, or almost 8% of the state’s population, based on city estimates and the average household size.

Restoring Power

PG&E first issued an “all clear” in parts of Northern California on Thursday afternoon. That meant the utility could start inspections and repairs before restoring service.

The company defended its decision to shut off power, saying high winds struck most of the counties affected and that they found fallen branches on some of the power lines that were de-energized. Johnson and others repeatedly said the utility failed in communicating to customers about the blackouts.

The massive blackout went down in stages. Half a million customers were cut off just after midnight on Wednesday. Parts of Northern California’s East and South Bays lost power late Wednesday. And early Thursday, PG&E turned off service to another 4,000 in parts of Kern County.

For wineries, the blackout hit at a crucial time: harvest. Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, said many wineries either bought or rented backup generators. Some smaller growers struck agreements to have their grapes stored at other facilities where there was power.

“Wineries have had to pay out money for backup power,” he said. “The sad thing is some of our smaller wineries can’t afford it.”

The widespread impact angered Californians -- and some elected officials. State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, called the outage “a completely unacceptable state of affairs.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Chediak in San Francisco at mchediak@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at ldoan6@bloomberg.net, Jasmine Ng

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