New, unplanned blackouts aim to prevent California wildfires. But has PG&E “gone too far”? | national news


SACRAMENTO, Calif .– Under investigation for the second largest wildland fire in California history, PG&E Corp. has activated circuit breakers across large areas of its network, enabling automatic shutdowns when something goes wrong.

The result: more than 400 blackouts since the end of July, many of which have lasted several hours, sparking a new wave of anger among customers and elected officials as California’s largest utility works to reduce the risk of large forest fires. An estimated 460,000 homes and businesses have been affected, including those that have been affected more than once, said PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado.

This new generation of outages is distinct from PG&E Public Safety Power Outages, or PSPS, in which customers are typically given about two days’ notice when high winds are forecast and fire danger increases. The most recent PSPS shut down 24,000 homes and businesses as of Monday, while another was due to start on Thursday, affecting 29,000 customers.

Instead, PG & E’s new “Improved Safety Settings on Power Lines” – typically triggered by contact with a tree or animal – generate unplanned, unannounced power outages.

“It’s a big puzzle – I’m working from home, all of a sudden there’s no electricity, no warning,” said Donna Levreault, a Grass Valley resident, who has suffered three. failures of this type. “It makes life very difficult.”

Craig Chatterton, who has twice lost power at his home near Watsonville in the Santa Cruz Mountains, said “they’ve gone too far, overreacted in some ways.”

PG&E says it is fine-tuning the system to reduce the size and duration of outages. Nonetheless, experts say the power outages say the blackouts are the latest reminder of California’s struggles to bring its wildfire crisis, which consumed a record 4 million acres last year. and nearly 2.5 million acres so far this season as climate change and drought have changed a lot. the state in a tinder box.

No company is more sensitive to this issue than PG&E, which was forced into bankruptcy in 2019 by a series of major wildfires that have burdened the utility with billions in debt.

“They think the risk of inflammation is so high right now that we need to take all possible measures,” said Michael Wara, a Stanford University legal expert who has advised the legislature on climate, fires forest and energy issues. “The net effect of this is more blackouts all the time, not just during PSPS events.

“A squirrel can cut the power to your house before a lineman can get out.”

PG&E instituted the enhanced safety settings two weeks after the start of the Dixie Fire, which burned more than 960,000 acres and wiped out historic downtown Little Greenville in Plumas County. Cal Fire is investigating whether the blaze started when a healthy-looking tree fell against a conductor on a PG&E utility pole near the Cresta Dam, west of Quincy.

In court documents, PG&E said it took hours for an inspector to reach the power line, which remained energized as the fire burned. Although not officially responsible for the blaze, PG&E told a federal judge last month that the new security settings “would have prevented this blaze.”

Patti Poppe, CEO of the company, said the decision was driven in part by the effects of climate change, which have drastically drained the forests where much of PG&E equipment is located. This means that PG&E had to resort to extraordinary methods.

“As conditions change, we have to change,” Poppe said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. “This is the genesis of our improved power line safety parameters.”

Poppe said she understands how the blackouts have bothered customers, but said they are effective, measured by what PG&E calls their “firing rate.” It is the percentage of fires started by incidents such as a tree branch hitting a wire.

“Our firing rate has dropped 90% since we implemented these settings,” she said.

Tostado cited an example: After a tree fell on a power line on September 7 near Coarsegold, in a remote area between Fresno and Yosemite, power was quickly cut off.

“It could have caused a major forest fire,” she said. “The program is working. We keep customers and communities safe.”

The program revolves around circuit breakers and other shutdown devices called reclosers. After the Dixie fire, crews increased sensitivities along PG&E’s 11,500-mile network, covering nearly half of the company’s service area designated by the Public Utilities Commission as particularly vulnerable to fires in Forest. The main difference is the speed: normally it may take a whole second to power off. At increased settings, shutdown occurs within a tenth of a second if a problem is detected.

“It could be a tree, a tree branch, a squirrel, the birds, a metallic balloon,” Tostado said. The increased parameters will remain in effect until the end of the forest fire season.

Some outages lasted for hours

Each of the outages affected an average of around 1,000 customers, which is a much smaller footprint than pre-planned public safety outages. Still, they can be long: A power outage in the Apple Hill area lasted 19 hours, according to PG&E.

Tostado said the company started adjusting settings for around 70% of devices about a month ago “to make them less sensitive without compromising security.” In addition, the system has been adjusted so that power outages occupy a smaller territory.

This means inspectors can patrol lines and poles faster, allowing PG&E to restore power sooner. Before, the average stop at Apple Hill was 11 hours; now there are only four. In Placerville, power outages last about five hours, about half as much as before. PG&E has taken other steps to reduce the frequency of power outages, including installing cone-shaped “squirrel guards” on some of its poles so that animals are less likely to trigger a shutdown.

Despite this, the outages led to numerous complaints to PG&E and the Public Utilities Commission.

Kelly Bates, who lives in Occidental, a few miles off the coast in Sonoma County, recently told PUC she suffered four outages, including one on a rainy day last month.

“It’s been raining all day here, I mean real rain,” she said in an interview. “On a day like this, isn’t there a human being who can analyze the situation and realize that there is almost no chance of a fire, and get by? I guess that no.”

Last month, the Santa Cruz County Supervisory Board asked the utilities commission to investigate the PG&E outages. “Basically, PG&E is telling its customers that they can choose a safe or reliable power supply, but not both,” said the supervisors’ resolution.

Terrie Prosper, spokesperson for the utilities commission, said in an email that the PUC “is currently evaluating PG&E’s use of enhanced power line safety parameters”, including dates and locations of outages .

In the meantime, complaints continue to flow.

“My confidence in PG&E is pretty low at this point,” said Grass Valley resident Levreault. “It’s just one thing after another with them.… Every time that something happens and they’re responsible for it, they make life difficult for everyone.”

© 2021 The Sacramento Bee. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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