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California's Largest Utility Warns People To Expect Blackouts This Summer


California's largest utility has warned residents they may be left in the dark this summer. PG&E plans to power down parts of the grid whenever there's a high risk of wildfire. The last two fire seasons were the worst on record, and the utilities' electrical equipment caused much of the damage.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Lily Jamali reports.

LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: PG&E's plan to de-energize parts of the grid comes from a familiar playbook. For a decade now, San Diego Gas & Electric has relied on this method to stop fires from starting or spreading, communicating with customers through public service announcements like this one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We pride ourselves on keeping the lights on. But when wildfires and severe weather threaten our system, we'll turn off the power.

JAMALI: State officials and regulators point to San Diego as a model for how utilities should respond to wildfire dangers. But the practice of plunging customers into the dark is a last resort.

JEFF SMITH: We do not take the decision to suspend service, to turn off power as a result of the Public Safety Power Shutoff program, lightly.

JAMALI: PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith says these public safety power shutoffs, as the utility calls, them could take place several times this coming fire season. Last year, the utility shut down power to its distribution lines only once. It notably didn't shut down power ahead of last November's Camp Fire, California's deadliest and most destructive, now blamed on PG&E equipment.

This year, for the first time, the company may shut down the giant, high-voltage transmission lines that serve as arteries to the system, possibly leaving large cities like San Francisco and San Jose, hundreds of miles from a wildfire zone, in the dark. This is raising concerns about how widespread power shutdowns will affect the most vulnerable.

SUSAN GORIN: That would include, certainly, our medically fragile folks, seniors who need air-conditioning as well as small businesses.

JAMALI: Susan Gorin is a Sonoma County supervisor.

GORIN: And please, before you allow this to happen, make sure that there is a very effective communication plan going forward.

JAMALI: Others point to the fact that PG&E, just weeks ago, scaled back the wildfire prevention plan it submitted to the state, which included expensive but important measures that could stop a pre-emptive shutdown in the first place.

2017 wildfire survivor Will Abrams fears the power shutdown plan gives the utility an easy out.

WILL ABRAMS: What this does is, unfortunately, it provides a release valve for the investor-owned utilities, where they can do this not as a matter of last resort and not have motivations to do the other mitigation that's so critical.

JAMALI: For now, PG&E is pushing to ensure they have the most updated contact information for the 16 million people who rely on the utility to keep the lights on.

For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lily Jamali