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PG&E’s Radical Plan to Prevent Wildfires: Shut Down the Power Grid

April 29th, 2019  |  Published in News Room

PG&E Corp. can’t prevent its power lines from sparking the kinds of wildfires that have killed scores of Californians. So instead, it plans to pull the plug on a giant swath of the state’s population.

No U.S. utility has ever blacked out so many people on purpose. PG&E says it could knock out power to as much as an eighth of the state’s population for as long as five days when dangerously high winds arise. Communities likely to get shut off worry PG&E will put people in danger, especially the sick and elderly, and cause financial losses with slim hope of compensation.

In October, in a test run of sorts, PG&E for the first time cut power to several small communities over wildfire concerns, including the small Napa Valley town of Calistoga, for about two days. Emergency officials raced door-to-door to check on elderly residents, some of whom relied on electric medical devices. Grocers dumped spoiling inventory. Hotels lost business.

PG&E is “essentially shifting all of the burden, all of the losses onto everyone else,” said Dylan Feik, who was Calistoga city manager until earlier this month.

By shutting off power in fire-prone parts of its service area, which are home to 5.4 million people, PG&E said in regulatory filings it hopes to prevent more deadly wildfires. The San Francisco-based company sought bankruptcy protection in January, citing more than $30 billion in potential damages from fires linked to its equipment.

This plan amounts to an admission by PG&E that it can’t always fulfill its basic job of delivering electricity both safely and reliably. Years of drought and a drying climate have turned the state’s northern forests into a tinderbox, and the utility has failed to make needed investments to make its grid sturdier.

During this year’s wildfire season, which typically starts around June, PG&E is preparing to make cutoffs to a far larger geographic region than it has targeted for blackouts in the past, increasing the number of potentially affected customers nearly 10-fold. While it is unlikely all areas would be affected at once, the outages may turn entire counties dark.

The company said it is attempting to figure out how to avoid stranding medically vulnerable residents and is working with local authorities to try to ensure water, traffic lights and phone services aren’t shut off. It concedes it may end up cutting power to some of these services until it can build a better system.

“We simply don’t have the luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we are seeing, to wait to get it perfect,” said Aaron Johnson, the PG&E vice president in charge of the program.

PG&E said it generally wouldn’t cover losses due to intentional blackouts — regulations don’t require it to — though it would consider claims case-by-case. It declined to say whether it has ever compensated anyone for such claims.

The plug-pulling could go on for years. PG&E is rushing to strengthen its system to make its power lines more fire resistant and to trim trees in fire-prone areas. It is installing equipment to pinpoint shut-offs more accurately. In February, it said that work would take five years or longer.

California has long faced wildfire risk in the summer and fall, when hot, strong winds threaten to dislodge power lines that can ignite dry brush. Drought and climate change have made the risk especially acute in Northern California, where aging power lines cut through forests filled with dead trees.

Although California is drought-free for the first time since 2011 and has experienced a rainy spring, a hot, dry summer could desiccate new vegetation, creating more fuel for wildfires.

California regulators and elected officials acknowledge the PG&E shut-offs could have unintended consequences but say the fire threat warrants extreme measures. Wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes and killed dozens of people in Northern California in recent years. State fire investigators determined that PG&E equipment played a role in starting 18 wildfires in 2017 that killed 22 people.

Last November, the so-called Camp Fire burned down the town of Paradise and killed 85 people. PG&E has said its equipment was probably the cause. The company had repeatedly delayed a safety overhaul of a century-old high-voltage transmission line that is a prime suspect.

“We find ourselves as a state in the situation where this appears to be a necessary program,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, the California Public Utilities Commission’s safety and enforcement chief. “The best we can do is establish parameters around it.” These rules will include reporting requirements and rules for when a utility could shut off power.

San Diego Gas & Electric was the first California utility to cut power during dry, windy weather. It first contemplated doing so after a deadly fire in 2007 but didn’t black out any areas until 2013, because of pushback from residents and regulators. It has been adding weather stations to precisely locate problem areas, as well as technology that allows it to shut down smaller parts of its grid.

To date, the San Diego utility’s largest blackout affected about 20,800 people. “If conditions threaten the integrity of our system, we will turn off power to protect public safety,” said a company spokeswoman. State rules, she said, “prevent payment for damages, such as food spoilage.”

Calistoga cutoff

PG&E has shut off power to reduce the risk of sparking fires only once before. The experience left residents, business owners and local officials unhappy. Last October, as winds reached 50 miles an hour, it shut off parts of its system that served 60,000 people in parts of seven counties.

Calistoga, a town of about 5,300 on the edge of wine country, was among those that went dark. City officials said communication with the company broke down when the lights went off, leaving them scrambling to find information and send medical help to vulnerable residents in three mobile-home parks. Some people spent nearly three days without power.

“This makes good business sense,” said Mr. Feik, the former city manager, of the power cut-off, “but from a public policy perspective, it’s awful.”

At the Calistoga Inn, an 18-room hotel with a restaurant and brewery, the lights went out during the dinner rush with 150 people dining on the patio. It took two days to restore power, forcing owner Michael Dunsford to clean out his refrigerators and issue refunds to hotel customers. Mr. Dunsford, also the town’s vice mayor, estimated the outage cost him about $15,000 in lost revenue and inventory.

The local hospital postponed surgeries. All three Calistoga schools closed. At the Calistoga Roastery, a refrigerator full of groceries used to make breakfast and lunch had to be thrown away. October is peak season for wine tourists, and hotels and restaurants had to cancel reservations.

Cal Mart, the local grocery store, closed for about 18 hours, costing owner Bill Shaw thousands of dollars in perishable goods. He plans to spend more than $100,000 to install a generator in the coming months.

Rural Sierra County, home to about 3,000 people in the Sierra Nevada, depends on internet-based phone service that doesn’t operate without electricity. When PG&E shut off power, the county lost its ability to use “reverse 911,” a system to alert residents using a recorded phone message.

“We would implore PG&E to rethink this policy,” the Sierra County board of supervisors later wrote in a letter to the company.

Resilience zones

PG&E is expanding its blackout program following the big 2018 Camp Fire.

It acknowledged the blackout resulted in some problems and said it is working to improve communications in future shut-offs. It also plans to create what it calls resilience zones, islands of power in town centers that provide electricity for certain services — police, a grocery store, a gas station, a community center where people can charge phones. That would require that PG&E deliver a generator to the zone after power is cut.

“We are a society so dependent on electricity,” said Junice Wilson, director of Mendocino Coast Home Health and Hospice, an agency that provides in-home services to about 100 residents in a rural coastal community. “It will be difficult for folks dependent on medical equipment.”

Conflicting estimates of how many people will be affected can make it hard to plan. In February, a lawyer representing Napa County wrote in a regulatory filing that PG&E told the county there were 150 people on a list of residents who received low-cost electricity because they used medical devices such as motorized wheelchairs and respirators. The state later said there were 1,691 people on the list. Meanwhile, the county had a separate list of 900 residents who needed electricity for medical reasons.

Expanding the program without first working out the bugs is a dangerous approach, said Irwin Redlener, a public-health professor at Columbia University and head of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “This is a population experiment that has some real ethical questions associated with it.”

Mr. Johnson, the PG&E official in charge of the program, said the company plans 350 community meetings this year to spread awareness about the blackouts. He said it also plans to conduct drills with county emergency officials in the early summer, when hot, dry winds could return to spark fires.

“The program will continue to evolve,” he said, “and get better and better each month.”

In Santa Rosa, a city devastated by wildfires in 2017, Councilman Jack Tibbetts said residents would likely tolerate a few days without power, given the alternative they had experienced.

Mr. Tibbetts, who serves as executive director of the county’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the region’s largest soup kitchen, added that it’s looking into buying a generator so it doesn’t have to shut down. “It is probably a good time to be in the generator business.”

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