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.

By the end of the year, PG&E hopes to have trimmed back trees and vegetation along 68.5 miles of distribution lines in areas of Sonoma County where the risk of fire is greatest, Contreras said.

The company has put in 33 weather stations in the county to help predict when the risk of fire is highest and is adding more, including stations on Coleman Valley Road South, Freestone Flat Road and Stoetz Lane in the west county and another station in Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa.

“The main goal with regards to (power shutoffs) is to make them shorter in length, smaller in size and smarter for customers,” Contreras said.

Sonoma County has joined other local governments urging state regulators to give them greater sway for when and how PG&E can turn the power off, particularly when communities are grappling with the growing coronavirus pandemic.

“The decision by PG&E to actually de-energize, that’s an internal one,” said Chris Godley, the county’s emergency services director. “We don’t necessarily have a voice in that decision. However our goal is to increase our ability to influence PG&E.”

Godley said this county and others have pushed to get greater access to decision-makers with the utility. Last year, local governments had little view into how the shutoffs would be managed and struggled to get basic information from PG&E.

At the time, company representatives referred everyone from government representatives to local residents to the company’s website for maps it purported would show who would be affected by the blackouts. But the website crashed and when it worked, it provided vague and even blurred-out information.

The county has detailed its concerns for state regulators.

“We keep underscoring the need for utilities to take into account that COVID-19 adds another layer of complexity,” Godley said.

More than 50% of PG&E’s service area, which runs across 70,000 square miles of territory, includes areas where the risk of fire is high.

Electrical blackouts are now part of peak fire season that returns to Sonoma County and other parts of California each autumn, when Diablo winds come from inland areas, delivering hot and dry weather on an already parched landscape.

Scientists are increasingly tallying data showing the climate is changing and that California faces increasing risk of fires.

California’s warmest years on record occurred from 2014 to 2018, according to a study by study by climate scientist Daniel Swain and his colleagues at University of California Los Angeles. Autumn precipitation has decreased 30% over the past four decades in California while temperatures have overall risen.

That combination creates dangerous conditions in September and October, when the state is unlikely to have had meaningful rainfall for months and when dry inland winds are most prevalent, researchers said.

Santa Rosa resident Will Abrams became one of PG&E’s staunchest critics after his family lost their home in the 2017 Tubbs fire. Abrams repeatedly urged the federal judge overseeing the utility’s bankruptcy to require the company overhaul its wildfire safety measures in order to settle its debts.

Abrams said he recognizes that power shutoffs may be necessary when the risk of fire is so great. But communication about the timing of the blackouts and resources for the most vulnerable must be immediate and accurate.

“Shutting off the power in a lot of ways passes the risks from PG&E onto residents,” Abrams said.

And so much of what will happen this fall is out of the hands of elected leaders and the local governments charged with handling the impacts when thousands are left in the dark.

“Maybe it’s the optimistic side of me wants to feel like they’ve heard from so many people about their unhappiness, including the CPUC,” Gorin said. “They got their marching orders, so we’ll see whether or not the impact will be moderated somewhat from last year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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