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PG&E plan to curb wildfires is working; here’s why some Sonoma County residents want it to end

PG&E says its 3-month-old plan to curb wildfires by turning off power lines if they are touched by a small animal or a tree branch has been massively successful.

But some North Bay residents who live in fire-prone areas where this initiative is being used — at least five times in Sonoma County — say it’s been too successful. They wonder if PG&E has gone a bit too far with this particular idea. Repeated, sudden blackouts that sometimes last hours are now becoming a problem of their own, some say.

PG&E’s Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings plan covers more than 11,500 miles of lines across the utility’s entire service area and, in Sonoma County, includes portions of Sebastopol, Occidental, Monte Rio, Fulton, Fort Ross and Geyserville.

Since mid-August, there have been five Sonoma County outages attributed to this measure.

The most recent, on Sept. 25, occurred in Geyserville, where 534 customers lost power. Four other shut-offs happened in the areas of Sebastopol and Occidental. The longest lasted about 24 hours beginning Aug. 13, but all four affected approximately 2,100 customers.

Few dispute PG&E’s endgame is necessary, given that much of Northern California is facing a drought that’s only increased the threat of wildfires. But the higher likelihood of outages is frowned upon and has sparked debate over PG&E’s approach.

“People are paying for a service,” said Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based advocacy group for utility users. “They’re not paying for not getting service. That’s the other kind of frustration. If people pay their bills, they think they should have reliable electricity,”

Take Jerry McCartan, who has lived between Sebastopol and Occidental for over 27 years. He said he understands PG&E’s rationale with the new measure, but believes the blackouts are extremely annoying and too many have already occurred this year.

“It seems like this year’s gotten a little carried away,” he said, while discussing an outage that affected his home at 2 a.m. on Sept. 15. He said it sent his wife to a relative’s house so she could make a morning Zoom call hours later.

That outage also forced Harmony Unified School District to shut and send students home early that day.

District Superintendent Matthew Morgan added at the time that the blackout affected hand-washing stations and ventilation systems, part of school COVID-19 safety protocols.

As of Sept. 23, there have been 329 unplanned shut-offs across PG&E’s coverage area because of the Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings plan.

“We understand the impact that losing power has on our customers’ lives, and we are working hard to reduce the outages communities are experiencing,” said Deanna Contreras, a PG&E spokeswoman.

Toney said his organization has received numerous complaints from consumers, mostly from those living in the Santa Cruz mountains. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a South Bay Democrat whose district includes Santa Cruz County, last week urged PG&E to review its process.

In a letter to PG&E, she wrote “While I appreciate the utility’s long-overdue attention to wildfire prevention, safety need not necessarily come at the expense of reliability. Unexpected and days-long outages are more than an inconvenience. They pose their own health and safety risks, particularly for the elderly and those living in more isolated areas, and the current situation cannot become the new normal.”

When contacted, Terrie Prosper, a spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission, told The Press Democrat that, “We are looking into the issue to ensure that PG&E is operating its system in accordance with rules, regulations and best safety and reliability practices.”

North Bay residents already face electricity loss whenever power safety shut-offs are enacted during major weather events that increase the threat of fires. This most recent occurred Sept. 20 when customers in Napa and Solano counties lost electricity because of gusty winds.

Area residents also contend with weather that causes sudden blackouts, or may force preemptive shut-offs due to warm periods that put stress on the state electrical grid.

PG&E officials say the latest measure is among many steps it’s implementing to prevent wildfires and it’s contributed to a 50% drop from the three-year average of ignitions that usually lead to fires. That actual number wasn’t immediately available.

Other steps are in place to reduce planned shut-offs.

Last week, PG&E announced it had completed an underground utility project that should prevent shut-offs to 11,000 Sonoma County customers during severe weather.

“By placing some of our power lines in the most fire-prone areas underground, we greatly reduce the need to impact our customers and turn off their power for safety during high winds and extremely dry weather events,” Ron Richardson, regional vice president for PG&E’s North Coast Region, said in a statement.

PG&E officials acknowledged the impending frustrations when the power line plan was announced two months ago and explained outage lengths would partially be due to the time it takes crews to patrol and identify whatever caused electricity to go out.

The Aug. 13 outage near Sebastopol and Occidental, which lasted about 24 hours, was blamed on a large tree branch. The ones on Aug. 23 and Sept. 15 involved equipment failure, as Contreras added the new plan involves cutting power as a precaution if mechanical issues arise.

No cause was identified for the Sept. 18 outage near Bohemian Highway and Bittner Road or the one in Geyserville on Saturday.

Contreras said the utility agency has been revisiting the plan and fine-tuning it to reduce the number and length of outages.

“We have been taking action and that action includes going back and retooling the sensitivity devices closer to where the fault was detected,” she said. “We are learning as we go and we hope the customers in Sonoma County will see the difference.”

She added that the length of each outage near Sebastopol and Occidental was shorter than the one before. Contreras also referenced resources available for customers who experience outages, like portable battery and generator rebate programs.

McCartan said he woke up to the outage on Sept. 15 and received multiple PG&E alerts that day about when power would be restored, but he was confused by an inconsistency in the information and when the actual recovery took place.

Even more confusing, he said, is that the cause of the outage wasn’t obvious and that’ll happen often if power can shut off due to reasons beyond those that Sonoma County residents have come to expect.

“Seemingly with no reason, with no bad reasons, like rainy weather or anything like that. Or no big fires going on anyplace,” McCartan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi.

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