PG&E map sheds light on planned power outages in Sonoma County
A majority of Sonoma County's cities and much of the surrounding North Bay could be affected under the wide-scale planned power outages that PG&E has signaled it intends to use to reduce the risk of its equipment sparking devastating wildfires, according to a map the utility company provided earlier this month to local government officials.
The map, obtained this week by The Press Democrat, illustrates the unprecedented scope of fallout for local electricity customers, showing areas that are more likely to have their power cut during periods of hot, dry, windy weather that can give rise to catastrophic fires.
The map's orange “affected areas” cover all of Cloverdale, Cotati, Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Windsor. Though PG&E has said that any of its 5.4 million customers in Northern and Central California could be affected by planned outages, swaths of Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and Rohnert Park are not tinted orange.
The map also indicates that much of northern Marin, southern Lake and western Napa counties could be affected by planned outages. Southern Mendocino County appears largely unaffected outside of the Highway 101 and Route 128 corridors.
“The planning maps show which areas are more likely to experience a shut off when gusty winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk, are forecasted to threaten a portion of the electric system,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said in a statement. “The maps show potential areas of more likely distribution-level and 70kV and below transmission-level impacts. They are approximate and show potential de-energization areas only. Additional areas could be impacted. PG&E is working to make these same planning maps available to customers through our website very soon.”
PG&E has conducted a series of preemptive power outages since last fall in an effort to curb fire risk associated with its equipment, which the state determined sparked many of the most destructive wildfires in 2017 and 2018. Going forward, the planned shutoffs could extend not just to small power lines connected to homes and businesses but to the large transmission that carry power across the state.
The utility's critics have blasted the outage plans, pointing to impacts on public safety, businesses and disabled people who rely on access to electricity. State legislators on Wednesday added to the scrutiny, suggesting that the bankrupt utility and other electricity providers would err on the side of power shutoffs to shield themselves from mounting wildfire liabilities.
“We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the first public safety power shutoff by this utility and it is past time that PG&E gets their act together,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, a member of the Senate's committee overseeing energy, utilities and communications. “All of the measures addressed in the meeting yesterday should have been discussed prior to launching last October's public power safety shutoffs. We're talking about all these details after the fact and it's unacceptable.”
PG&E, meanwhile, had urged local governments to withhold public release of the new North Bay outage map, arguing it lacked context and could be misleading to viewers. Sonoma County last week released a blurred version of the map that was illegible. A source with access to a legible version provided the map to The Press Democrat.
PG&E declined to make a subject-matter expert available this week to answer more detailed questions about the map and the methodology used to chart the scope of planned power outages. Contreras said the utility would provide additional information when it makes the maps public.
The utility is preparing to release maps of its entire service area through its website in the next few weeks, officials said.
The North Bay map was provided this month to officials in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa through a secure data portal to help them plan for PG&E's outages. Though most of Sonoma County is marked as “affected,” local officials have cautioned that the likelihood of an outage affecting the entire county is very low.
A prolonged, widespread outage, however, could have the potential to be very disruptive, officials acknowledged, posing problems ranging from cellphone service to storage of food.
“This is a significant new challenge,” Chris Godley, Sonoma County's emergency management director said last week. “It's been a generation since we've seen large-scale power outages in Sonoma County.”
PG&E has said it intends to provide advance notice to its customers and the public before cutting power, and Contreras said the utility also will provide “maps of impacted areas in a variety of formats.”
“We've always said that while customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any customer could have their power shut off because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions,” she said. “The specific area and number of affected customers will depend on forecasted weather conditions and which circuits PG&E needs to turn off for public safety.”
Amid the scorching heat this week, the Petaluma Fire Department highlighted the potential for such outages and called on residents to be prepared.
“PG&E may cut power to all of Petaluma this summer and fall for several days,” the fire department wrote in an announcement about the opening of cooling center in town. “ATM machines won't work, gas stations won't be able to pump gas, traffic signals will be out, garage doors will need to be opened manually....... Are you ready?”
Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @wsreports.