PG&E says overheating transformers cause outages for 40,000 customers

The streak of extreme heat in the Bay Area plunged thousands of people into darkness Monday as power outages sent PG&E crews rushing to repair overtaxed transformers that began to fail due to the high temperatures.

PG&E said as many as 40,000 customers were without power as of 7 p.m. Monday, but by 10 p.m., that number was down to 26,438. The biggest outages were in the East Bay where 17,143 customers lost power. Other outages affected residents in the South Bay (5,952 customers), the Peninsula (2,227 customers) and the North Bay (1,116 customers).

In Pleasant Hill, PG&E says power went out just before 4 p.m. due to a failed transformer. Gas stations at the corner of Alhambra Avenue and Virginia Hills Drive couldn't pump gas or do business. The Safeway store, at the same corner on the border of Martinez and Pleasant Hill, was completely dark with no power for lights to do business. A handwritten sign saying "Closed" was posted on the window.

"Throughout the Bay Area, the main cause of outages that we're seeing is transformer failure because these components are not able to cool down overnight," said Mayra Tostado, a PG&E spokeswoman, "We have brought in crews from outside the area to support with restoration efforts. Today, we have  more than 240 troublemen and repair crews."

Crews put temporary stop signs up at intersections where traffic lights were out and urge drivers to be careful.

"We noticed stoplights out all the way from Lafayette kind of Happy Valley Road to Taylor Boulevard," said Zach Cooper, a Pleasant Hill resident.

The sound of generators filled many neighborhoods.

"We have people over for dinner right now too, so we are cooking right now on a camp stove in our backyard because the electric thing won't work to turn our stove on, so we're getting creative," said Maddy Cooper, who says they were celebrating her brother Zach's entrance into college.

The Cooper family says they tried to keep their refrigerator closed, shut doors and shutters to keep the house cool, and they had candles on hand for light.

Cal-ISO, the state's independent service operator for the power grid, said people did conserve enough to avoid rolling blackouts Monday, but the heat is expected to get worse.

"Cal ISO did say that we have done a good job reducing energy usage, however they need to see 2-3 times more conservation to prevent rotating outages," said Tostado.

Tuesday, power demand in California is expected to hit a 20-year record high of 51,000 megawatt-hours.

"That would be an all-time record for California in terms of energy grid demands. That will be a challenge for the state to meet," said Terry Crowley, the City of Healdsburg Utility Director.

Crowley says people need to keep conserving power during the week, particularly between the hours of 4PM and 9PM.

Local power agencies are preparing for potential rotating blackouts.

"We don't get generally get a lot of lead time. Potentially we get about an hour to prepare for that, and so we really need customers to be ready for outages tomorrow but be prepared to conserve to avoid those outages," said Crowley.

Tuesday could also pose a bigger challenge as people return to work and school after the Labor Day holiday.

"My wife and I work from the house, so we definitely need the power so if not, we'll have to go somewhere else," said Jim Cooper of Pleasant Hill.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said kilowatts rather than megawatts. A correction has been made.