The twilight zones

This is what it’s like to live through a PG&E blackout

Nevada City’s historic Main Street falls into complete darkness at sunset for the third night in a row on Oct. 10.

Nevada City’s historic Main Street falls into complete darkness at sunset for the third night in a row on Oct. 10.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Nearly 80 people crowded into a makeshift outpost in a quiet corner of Grass Valley, moving around desert-colored tents, mobile toilets, standing spotlights, buzzing generators and parked emergency vehicles. At a glance, the camp—surrounded by a scattering of pine trees under a blue, cloudless sky—could have been mistaken for a forward operating base in Afghanistan.

Of course, there was an obvious difference between a military base and this “resource center,” hastily erected by PG&E after the embattled utility giant cut off electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers last week: No one signed up for this.

PG&E has steadfastly defended its biggest-ever power shut-off, saying that widespread, red flag conditions—similar to those when the deadly Tubbs and Camp fires ignited in 2017 and 2018, respectively—made the shut-off across the Sierra foothills and Bay Area last week necessary to prevent an errant electrical spark from starting the next wildfire that could destroy communities and put PG&E out of business.

Across the state, more than 700,000 customers were affected by the shut-off, which impacted more than 2 million people, according to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Here in Butte County, approximately 30,000 people lost power for anywhere from a few hours to days. As with the two previous instances when PG&E has activated its Public Safety Power Shutoff program, isolated seniors, disabled residents and those with medical conditions became even more vulnerable.

The execution of the shut-off has been widely criticized, from Gov. Gavin Newsom down to people like those in Grass Valley’s enclave, one of 28 safety zones PG&E set up to help people it put in the dark. Poorly advertised and relying on a borrowed—and quickly overwhelmed—Wi-Fi network of the nearby Sierra College satellite campus, the resource center functioned as a sort of survivalist speakeasy with unhappy customers.

People stewed in over-air-conditioned tents, many sharing a conviction that Nevada County only experienced moderate winds for a few hours on Oct. 9—and for that, every rhythm of daily life had been disrupted.

“They’re acting like we’ve never had wind before this year,” fumed Richard Calkins, a 16-year Grass Valley resident. “Dry conditions shouldn’t be an issue if their equipment is up to code. … The bottom line is, there’s a lot of people here who want to know if we’re being punished because PG&E is losing its lawsuit. What’s the real motivation?”

Before the week was out, many others, including the governor, were asking similar questions.

Fictional comparisons abound for what it was like on that first powerless sunrise in places like Nevada County. For anyone with plumbing powered by well pumps, the dystopian vibe was like Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Tourists who wanted to experience the Gold Rush-era saloons and Victorian architecture wandered Nevada City’s empty Main Street in an eerie silence reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. And early commuters driving to Sacramento might be excused for thinking of any number of disaster movies, with Highway 49 backed up for miles due to traffic signals going dark in north Auburn.

Economist Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment announced on social media that he’d used a special disruption calculator created by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to estimate what the blackout could cost California’s overall economy: $2.5 billion.

The timing of the blackouts has fueled criticism. Just one day before the utility giant pulled the plug, a federal judge handling PG&E’s bankruptcy case ruled that its creditors, along with wildfire victims, can propose an alternative plan for the company to regain solvency, one that would prioritize recovering their losses over shareholder profits. PG&E’s stock plummeted on the news. The next day, the company sent much of Northern California into darkness.

“The PG&E Blackout con is all about threatening the judge in the PG&E bankruptcy case,” energy commentator Greg Palast wrote in an open letter. “The victims have joined with the bondholders to eliminate the equity of the stockholders who deserve nothing. … Hopefully the judge will not be intimidated.”

Newsom stopped short of that accusation, but made it clear he believed that PG&E was more responsible for the shut-off than weather conditions.

“This is not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” Newsom told reporters. “Neglect—a desire to advance not public safety but profits.”

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson replied in a statement, saying the company had followed its hazard mitigation plan as approved by the CPUC.

“We appreciate the significant impact that turning off power for safety has on our customers and the state,” he said. “While we recognize this was a hardship for millions of people throughout Northern and Central California, we made that decision to keep customers and communities safe. That was the right decision.”

The CPUC came on strongly following the shut-offs, however, and called an emergency meeting with PG&E executives for Friday (Oct. 18) to discuss what it saw as major flaws in executing the plan.

“Failures in execution, combined with the magnitude of this [Public Safety Power Shutoff] event, created an unacceptable situation that should never be repeated,” CPUC President Marybel Batjer said in a press release after ordering PG&E take immediate corrective measures. “The scope, scale, complexity, and overall impact to people’s lives, businesses, and the economy of this action cannot be understated.”

Meredith J. Cooper contributed to this report.