SAN FRANCISCO — It was a problem that California had come to dread. Weather models were signaling extreme winds and dry conditions from one end of the state to the other. The risk of wildfires was high.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant utility whose power lines and transformers have been blamed for a series of disastrous wildfires in recent years, was determined to prevent another one.
Just before last weekend, the company informed state officials that it might shut off power to a large area of Northern California, potentially leaving millions of people in the dark — something no US utility had done in recent memory. It made that news public on Monday. By Tuesday morning, about a hundred utility executives, state officials, meteorologists, and others had gathered at an operations center in San Francisco to coordinate the effort.
Things quickly began going wrong. PG&E’s communications and computer systems faltered, and its website went down as customers tried to find out whether they would be cut off or spared. As the company struggled to tell people what areas would be affected and when, chaos and confusion unspooled outside. Roads and businesses went dark without warning, nursing homes and other critical services scrambled to find backup power, and even government agencies calling the company were put on hold for hours.
All told, more than 700,000 homes or businesses — from the state’s northernmost reaches to the outskirts of Silicon Valley — lost electricity beginning early Wednesday morning, and the state’s emergency center usually used for natural disasters was activated. Most residents had power restored by noon Friday, and just over 12,000 were still without it on Saturday morning.
“There were definitely missteps,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, a representative for the state Public Utilities Commission who was in the control center. “It’s pretty much safe in saying, this did not go well.”
While California prides itself on its technical prowess and economic might, PG&E had to send crews out into the field, in a few cases, to manually flip switches to turn off power and then turn it back on, rather than doing it remotely.
Residents were left asking why so many people had to lose power and whether rolling blackouts would become routine as climate change makes wildfires more frequent and intense.
The company, which is facing $30 billion in liabilities from recent wildfires started by its equipment, has drawn intense scorn from both its customers and state officials.
This summer, PG&E and its newly appointed chief executive, Bill Johnson, had promised to do better. Blamed for its lax safety practices, the utility submitted a detailed plan to regulators on the protocol it would use to preemptively blackout parts of its service area to prevent fires. It also promised to step up the trimming of trees along its transmission lines and make other changes.
“We did not deliver on this commitment this time,” Johnson said Thursday evening as hundreds of thousands of his customers sat in the dark. “We were not prepared to manage the operational event.”
Catherine Maynes, who handles logistics for Generators Unlimited, which supplies power backup equipment throughout Northern California, said she knew it was going to be a busy week as early as last weekend, when reports of the growing fire hazard started to surface.
Monday was a normal day at Generators Unlimited because it was not yet clear when the blackouts would start and who would be affected. It was Tuesday that everything changed.
“First thing in the morning, as we opened the door, the calls started pouring in,” said Maynes, who works in Brisbane, south of San Francisco. “It never stopped ringing.”
While people and companies with means could turn to businesses like Maynes for backup power, many others did not have that luxury. When they tried to get more information, answers were often not forthcoming.
One option was community resource centers, places run by the utility where affected residents were supposed to be able to cool off and charge their phones. But they often got little information or assistance there because PG&E had not adequately staffed the centers, said a senior state official with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Meanwhile, state agencies in charge of services like railways and the water supply were forced to open the state’s emergency operations center, which is normally used for actual disasters like earthquakes and fires, the official said. The center was running at Level 2, the same level at which it operated during the Ridgecrest earthquake over the summer. And the local authorities were forced to bear the cost of additional staffing, including overtime hours for police officers, to deal with the shutdown.
This was a big moment for PG&E, which does not have extensive experience using what California officials refer to as a “public safety power shut-off.” Its previous wildfire shut-offs had been limited to tens of thousands of customers — and it was ill prepared for the task.
Malashenko, deputy executive director for safety and enforcement at the California Public Utilities Commission, arrived at 9 a.m. on Tuesday for the first of her two 12-hour shifts at PG&E’s operations center. She said she was stunned by what she saw. PG&E’s website crashed just before the first rounds of power shut-offs.
In addition, the systems the company uses to alert residents and businesses that they would lose power didn’t work as they were supposed to, Johnson, the chief executive, later acknowledged.
The situation got so bad at one point that Malashenko called in information technology specialists from the state to help restore PG&E’s systems. (Besides Malashenko, representatives from the state emergency services and forestry and fire prevention agencies were also at the center to help coordinate the government’s response with the utility and to relay information to state leaders.)
PG&E declined requests for interviews for this article with company officials who were at the emergency center.