PG&E blames dust and rain combo for power outage

Thousands of PG&E customers lost power over the weekend because of a combination of dust and rain on power lines and equipment, the utility said.

At the peak, PG&E says about 29,000 Bay Area customers lost power, primarily in the Richmond, El Cerrito and San Pablo in the East Bay. The outages began Saturday night and had not been fully resolved Sunday. 

These outages were separate from planned power shutoffs that were designed to reduce the threat of wildfires amid a red flag warning that took effect Sunday night.

The utility says the first light rainfall following months of drought led to a somewhat rare combination of dust and rain combining on equipment to disrupt the power flow.

"Whenever we've had a long dry spell like we've had dirt and dust and salt accumulates on the lines and when the first mist and light rain comes along, it turns that mixture into mud.  And mud conducts electricity and so it causes damage to the system and electrical outages," said PG&E spokesperson, Deanna Contreras.

So, the fires and arching that occurred on some power poles could have potentially been avoided had the rain been heavier.

This pole at 42nd near Roosevelt in Richmond is one of several showing the scar of overnight flames.

"So, I look out the window and the pole is on fire, just at the very top.  It’s just like sparking and there’s some fire at the top.  But they put it out pretty quickly," said Ariel Smith.

An El Cerrito couple found themselves among thousands in the Bay Area lacking electricity.

"This morning we woke up and we did not have power and then we went out to do a few errands and returned, still did not have power.  I was moving today and had to gas up my U-haul and all the gas stations were closed," said Elliot Arthur.

The outage also knocked out power to traffic lights, and businesses, like this corner market in Richmond that opened, but was unable to take electronic payments.

Amanda Morgan was one of several customers who came in to buy ice "just to keep my meats from going bad because they’re getting a little bit warm in the refrigerator," she said.

By 2 p.m., PG&E reported progress on restoration with slightly more than 9,000 customers powerless, a drop from the peak of the problem

The utility says it has a line washing program, primarily centered around large, high-voltage transmission lines, but is expanding the program to distribution lines serving neighborhoods.

"We did do some washing in the east bay, locations in the east bay as we expand this line washing program, but apparently we couldn’t get to all of it," said Contreras.