PG&E prepares for planned outages, but vows they will be smaller and shorter in 2020
Small stockpiles of generators at a PG&E substation in Glen Ellen and another in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley foretell the season ahead.
Turning off the power is one of the bluntest tools PG&E has to prevent its electrical grid from starting wildfires, a goal that is increasingly urgent with year after year of deadly and catastrophic fall fire seasons.
The strategy failed last year to stop equipment on a PG&E transmission tower in northern Sonoma County’s Mayacamas Mountains from sparking the Kincade fire during a late October blackout prompted by an inland wind storm. The blaze grew into the largest conflagration in county history.
PG&E executives claim shutting off the power is still an essential tool for preventing wildfires and Californians can expect to lose power during risky fire weather again. But the utility’s representatives have vowed to reduce the impact of the fire-prevention blackouts — saying they will cut the number of customers who lose power by one-third — by carving the grid into smaller sections.
Strong doubts remain that the utility will be able to successfully use this fire prevention tactic, especially at a time when the coronavirus pandemic makes it more risky for people to leave their homes.
“I’ve experienced every single one of the power shutdowns,” said Sonoma County Supervisors Board Chair Susan Gorin, whose Oakmont home burned in the 2017 Nuns fire. “We had a very long power shutdown and then the Kincade fire erupted — just to rub it in.”
As much as she wishes to avoid the thought, Gorin is keenly aware that another big fire might strike the county at a time when people are more vulnerable than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic. She’s listened closely to PG&E representatives describing how the utility will do better this year.
She’s hopeful but not convinced.
After beginning in limited areas in 2018, PG&E cut power to huge parts of California last year, a strategy driven by the massive destruction and resulting liability from wildfires caused by PG&E equipment in 2017 and 2018.
Nearly 3 million Californians were left in the dark during last year’s blackouts, causing widespread havoc and a steep economic toll. The blackouts were widely lambasted by local governments and state regulators as too broad with frustratingly little cooperation and poor communication from the utility.
In Sonoma County, four power shutoffs initiated by PG&E in October and November left about 195,000 residents in the dark and caused an estimated $105 million in economic losses.
PG&E’s management of the shutoffs was widely lambasted. State regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission threatened sanctions and ordered the utility to detail its plans to avoid another debacle this year.
Since then, PG&E representatives have touted the utility’s enormous efforts to address the problems exposed last year during the blackouts. The company is building more sophisticated and tailored plans to turn off the power during the riskiest fire conditions, shutoffs designed to be shorter in duration and tailored to smaller areas.
Part of the challenge is the design of the massive electrical system, which serves 16 million customers in Northern and Central California. It wasn’t built to be turned off in small sections, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.
The generators stored at substations in Rincon Valley and Glen Ellen are part of the utility’s plans to lessen the blow of blackouts. They will be used to keep some of the county’s six power substations energized when other parts of that grid must be turned off to reduce wildfire risk.
The machines will also help create temporary microgrids with priority focused on key resources like medical facilities, pharmacies, gas stations, fire stations and banks. And some of the machines can be used to provide electrical power for vulnerable populations and community resource centers.
The utility is also working to build smaller grids that can be turned on and off remotely with devices called sectionalizers. Crews are installing about 600 of these devices throughout PG&E’s massive service area, including 45 in Sonoma County. Of those, 39 are already operational.
PG&E also has doubled its helicopter fleet used to inspect power lines and equipment from above for damage. It now has crews able to fly at night, enabling the company to more quickly check lines and restore power.
In addition, the utility is trying to strengthen its equipment to better withstand the impact of windstorms and other weather hazards. That includes installing stronger and taller power poles, covering exposed electrical wires and replacing older conductors, as crews did near Guerneville last week.