Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) early Wednesday began preemptively shutting off power to customers due to wildfire risk posed by severe winds in the region, an outage event expected to last days and dampen natural gas demand.

The utility, whose infrastructure has been linked to last year’s devastating Camp Fire and who filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year amid financial liabilities for that blaze and others that have ravaged the state in recent years, plans to cut power in three phases as part of its Public Safety Power Shutoff.

The first phase began early Wednesday morning, impacting around 513,000 customers across Central and Northern California. PG&E said early Wednesday that another phase of shutoffs will follow Wednesday afternoon, impacting 234,000 customers. A third phase would impact around 42,000 customers in the southernmost portions of its service area, but the utility had not determined specific locations as of early Wednesday.

The outage could last days, with PG&E planning to begin restoration only once the severe weather -- strong winds combined with dry, hot conditions creating an elevated fire risk -- has subsided, expected by around midday Thursday.

As a winter storm is expected to bring heavy snow and strong winds across parts of the Northern Rockies and Northern Plains, the National Weather Service (NWS) warned that farther south strong winds could lead to “critical fire weather conditions from portions of California and the Great Basin east to the central Rockies.”

PG&E said it was bracing for winds as strong as 60-70 mph at higher elevations from Wednesday morning through Thursday morning.

“Before restoring power, PG&E must inspect its equipment for damage and make any necessary repairs,” the utility said. “That process cannot begin until the severe weather event has subsided. Given the prolonged period during which the wind event will unfold, and the large number of power line miles that will need to be inspected before restoration, customers are being asked to prepare for an extended outage.”

PG&E Senior Vice President Michael Lewis, in charge of electric operations for the utility, said the shutoffs are being implemented to protect the safety of customers and communities.

“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,” Lewis said.

Spot Prices Elevated

The shutoffs come as cold weather, strong demand and supply disruptions have driven elevated natural gas spot prices at a number of key hubs in the western United States this week. PG&E Citygate averaged $3.295/MMBtu Tuesday, a significant premium to prices at locations throughout the eastern two thirds of the Lower 48.

PG&E has planned maintenance starting Thursday and scheduled to run through the end of October that would limit natural gas import capacity along the Redwood Path by as much as 0.5 Bcf/d, according to Genscape Inc. analyst Joe Bernardi.

“Redwood Path volumes are the main source of supply for PG&E’s system-wide demand during the shoulder season, before withdrawal season fully begins in November,” the analyst said. “However, with this maintenance in place and with colder-than-normal weather expected for much of the northwestern U.S. over the next several weeks, PG&E may begin drawing on storage earlier than in a typical year.”

PG&E’s power outages could help to offset some of the bullish pressure otherwise exerted on PG&E Citygate from this restriction, Bernardi said.

“PG&E Noncore Electric Generation gas demand has averaged 618 MMcf/d in the past 30 days, swinging from a low of 316 MMcf/d during a September weekend to a high of 1,042 MMcf/d on Sept. 25, when Bay area highs reached 94 degrees,” the analyst said.

Meanwhile, further north, Malin also jumped above $3 Tuesday, while Northwest Sumas averaged near $5, according to Daily GPI.

The spikes in the Pacific Northwest have coincided with restrictions on storage withdrawals from the Jackson Prairie facility, limits on southbound flow capacity on Westcoast Energy and limits on import capacity from the Rockies, according to Bernardi.