SAN FRANCISCO — As PG&E tries to control the damage done to its image by switching off power to more than 2 million people during a planned public safety power shutoff, the company is warning state regulators that future shutoffs could be far worse, potentially cutting off power to all 16 million people who use the electric company to power their lives.
"The likelihood of an event of this scale occurring [is] extremely low," PG&E told state regulators. Still, the company says, it is preparing for the possibility of a whole-grid shutoff out of "an abundance of caution."
Under intense pressure from the state government and a federal judge overseeing PG&E's punishment for six federal felonies, the company has moved to shut down vast sections of its power grid with the goal of preventing its equipment from starting more deadly wildfires.
State fire investigators blame PG&E power lines for sparking wildfires that killed 107 people in 2017 and 2018.
The shutoffs grew more widespread this year as a direct result of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California's history. Unlike the 2017 fires, the Camp Fire was sparked by a high-tension transmission line.
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PG&E admitted to finding widespread maintenance problems on its aging transmission lines and decided to include these backbone pieces of the power grid in its shutoff plans starting in 2019, causing more customers to be cut off than ever before.
While warning future shutoffs could be even bigger, the power company told state regulators that it is working to modify the power grid so that smaller areas can be shut off in the future.
In this month's shutoffs, PG&E's website was unable to handle the demand for information about which areas would be affected. State IT workers had to help the company restore access to the site. PG&E says it has already made improvements to its website by shifting more of its web services to cloud-based servers, as opposed to its own in-house computer network.
The company also acknowledged the maps it did publish were not detailed enough, saying it plans to "provide a higher level of precision" during shutoffs in future fire seasons.
Be sure to check out Brandon Rittiman's "Fire Power Money" series, which breaks down California's history of wildfires, Pacific Gas and Electric Company's court issues, and politicians' roles in regulating the utility company.
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In California, fires are burning more intensely than ever before. Megafires destroy entire neighborhoods. Some of the deadliest fires have been caused by our own electric grid, but all fires are burning worse because of climate change and an unhealthy forest landscape.