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PG&E starts blackouts for nearly 800,000 customers as wildfire risk surges

Facing extreme risks that its power lines could ignite wildfires in hot, dry and windy conditions, Pacific Gas and Electric has begun the first wave of precautionary blackouts to nearly 800,000 customers across 34 counties in Northern and Central California, the PG&E Corp. utility subsidiary said early Wednesday.

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At midnight, power cuts for an initial roughly 513,000 customers started. A second phase, affecting about 234,000 customers, would begin about noon Wednesday, followed by a possible third round affecting about 42,000 customers, the utility said.

"The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility, which is why PG&E has decided to turn power off to customers during this widespread, severe wind event," Michael Lewis, senior vice president of PG&E's electric operations, said in a news release Wednesday. "We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public's patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire."

After PG&E first warned Monday of power cuts to more than 600,000 customers, local authorities cautioned residents that power may not return for a week.

LARGEST OF ITS KIND IN STATE

By far the largest intentional power cuts in state history, according to California Public Utilities Commission records, the blackouts come as PG&E and its parent company are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, facing potentially more than $30 billion in liabilities from devastating 2017 and 2018 wildfires linked to PG&E electric infrastructure.

Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy program at Stanford University's Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and a member of California's Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery, estimated in a Twitter post that more than 2 million people in PG&E's service territory could be affected. The utility's 800,000 estimate is based on customer accounts, not people served.

OTHERS CONSIDER SHUTOFFS

Statewide, almost 1 million customers, based on accounts only, could lose power in coming days amid widespread wildfire danger, including estimates from Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Southern California Edison, an Edison International subsidiary, said Tuesday it was considering a public safety power shutoff affecting roughly 173,300 customers.

Also, Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric forecast Tuesday that 28,701 customers could be affected by blackouts in its service territory.

-- Garrett Hering, S&P Global Market Intelligence, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Bill Montgomery, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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