The twilight zones

For 800,000 PG&E customers thrown into the dark, life slows to an uncertain, expensive crawl

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 800,000 customers last week: No one signed up for this.

PG&E has steadfastly defended its biggest-ever power shutoff, saying that widespread, red flag conditions—similar to those when the deadly Tubbs and Camp fires ignited last year—made the shutoff 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.

In Nevada County, hundreds of small business owners and thousands of employees lost income from the evening of Oct. 8 to the afternoon of Oct. 11. 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.

Grass Valley's enclave was 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’s traffic backed up for miles due to traffic signals going dark in north Auburn.

Few had it busier than the baristas working the espresso machines at Grass Valley's Safeway and Raley's. With the area's coffeehouses shuttered, customers formed long lines in both grocery stores as hundreds paced the aisles around them, loading carts full of water, supplies and non-perishable food. Even though plenty in the territory own generators, many could only afford to run them sporadically, as PG&E had cut electricity at the same time California gas prices were spiking.

By Oct. 10, the small shopping center at Higgins Corner in Nevada County, which had a generator-powered gas station, was flooded with some 40 vehicles inching toward its pumps.

One businessman determined to keep his doors open was Al Lauer, owner of Cherry Records in downtown Auburn. Relying on a large skylight, an old Princess phone and a hand-press credit card processor from 1984, Lauer made sure visitors had at least one place to shop.

“Old tech is the best tech,” Lauer said with a smile.

It will take time to determine what PG&E’s decision cost foothill economies, says Maureen Funk, executive director of the Amador Council of Tourism. Parts of the county went without power for five days, directly impacting two of its biggest industries—wine and historic sightseeing.

“In Plymouth it was affecting the grape harvest, and there was a bit of panic going on,” Funk said. “The inns and hotels that had guests coming were trying to figure out if they should cancel, and the places that already had guests were canceling and having to send them away. It was extraordinary.”

Economist Michael Wara of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment announced on his social media he'd used a special disruption calculator created by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to estimate that 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, PG&E 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.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped short of that accusation, but made it clear he believed that PG&E was more responsible for the shutoff 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.”

On Monday, he called on PG&E to give refunds of $100 each to residential customers and $250 for small businesses.

Also Monday, the president of the state Public Utilities Commission also criticized PG&E, called the shutoff an unacceptable failure that cannot be repeated and ordering it improve its procedures immediately, including restoring power within 12 hours.

Even for those who believe PG&E acted in good faith, the utility's actions stood in contrast to how weather experts at a smaller public utility handled the red flag conditions. While none of Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District's customers live in an area the California Public Utilities Commission includes in its fire threat map, SMUD does have power lines and receivers that transmit electricity from its hydro plants down through the Sierra Nevada. SMUD spokesman Chris Capra told SN&R there was a reason his company never shut off power to that equipment.

“We didn't really see the wind events that were forecasted,” Capra said. “We didn't see wind speeds of more than 22 mph, and our infrastructure is rated for much more than that. Basically, the wind wasn't there.”