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 United States 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