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Friday, November 26, 2021

PG&E unplanned power outages to prevent fires angered some customers

Dale Kasler | Sacramento Bee

As part of an investigation into the second largest wildfire in California history, PG&E Corp. has connected circuit breakers over large sections of its network, which allows them to automatically turn off the moment something goes wrong.

The result: More than 400 power outages have occurred since late July, many of which have lasted several hours, sparking renewed anger among customers and elected officials as California’s largest utility works to reduce the risk of major wildfires. PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado estimates that about 460,000 homes and businesses have been affected, including those that have been affected more than once.

This new generation of power outages is different from PG&E public safety power outages, or PSPS, in which customers are usually notified about two days in advance as strong winds are forecast and fire hazards are increasing.

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

“This is a big headache – I work from home, suddenly there is no electricity, no warning,” said Donna Levreau, Grasse Valley resident, who had three such blackouts.

Craig Chatterton, who lost power twice at his home near Watsonville, said: “They went too far, in some ways they reacted sharply.”

PG&E says it is fine-tuning the system to reduce the size and duration of power outages. However, experts say the power outages are the latest reminder of California’s struggle to overcome the bushfire crisis that destroyed a record 4 million acres last year and nearly 2.5 million acres this season.

No company is more sensitive to this issue than PG&E, which went bankrupt in 2019 due to a series of large wildfires that burdened the utility with billions of dollars in liabilities.

“They think the risks of any fire are so high right now that we need to take all possible steps,” said Michael Vara, a Stanford University lawyer who has advised the legislature on climate, forest fires and energy. “The net effect of this is more and more power outages all the time, not just during PSPS events.

“A squirrel can turn off the electricity in your home.”

PG&E introduced enhanced security measures two weeks after the Dixie fire began, which burned more than 960,000 acres of land and destroyed the historic center of tiny Greenville in Plumas County. Cal Fire is investigating whether the fire started when a seemingly healthy tree fell on a conductor on a PG&E power tower near the Cross Dam.

In court documents, PG&E said it took the inspector hours to get to the power line. While PG&E does not officially take the blame for the fire, PG&E told a federal judge last month that new security settings “would have prevented this fire.”

Patti Poppe, the company’s chief executive officer, said the decision was in part due to the effects of climate change, which has dramatically dried up in forests where most of PG&E’s equipment is located. This means that PG&E had to resort to extraordinary methods.

“As conditions change, we must change,” Poppé said in an interview.

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Poppé said she understands why the power outages were inconvenient for customers, but she said they were effective in terms of what PG&E calls “fire rate.” This is the percentage of fires caused by a tree branch hitting a wire.

“The ignition rate has dropped 90% since we put these settings in place,” she said.

Tostado gave one example: After a tree fell on a power line on September 7 near Corsegold, in a remote area between Fresno and Yosemite, the electricity was quickly cut off.

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

The program revolves around circuit breakers and other isolation devices known as reclosers. In the aftermath of the Dixie fire, brigades increased sensitivity along the 11,500 miles of the PG&E network, covering nearly half of the company’s service area, designated by the Public Utilities Commission as particularly vulnerable to wildfires. The main difference is speed: it can usually take a full second to turn off the power. With increased settings, shutdown occurs after tenths of a second when a malfunction is detected.

“It could be a tree, a tree branch, a squirrel, a bird, a metal ball,” Tostado said. The increased settings will remain in effect until the end of the bushfire season.

Each power outage affected an average of about 1,000 customers, far less than planned public safety outages. However, they can be lengthy: According to PG&E, one power outage in the Apple Hill area lasted 19 hours.

About a month ago, Tostado said the company began adjusting settings on about 70% of devices “to make them less sensitive without compromising security.” In addition, the system has been adjusted so that power outages occur in a smaller area.

This means that inspectors can patrol lines and poles faster, allowing the PG&E to turn on the power again earlier. Previously, Apple Hill’s average stop was 11 hours; now there are four left. PG&E has taken other steps to reduce the frequency of power outages, including installing tapered “squirrel fuses” on some of its poles to make animals less likely to trigger.

Regardless, power outages led to numerous complaints to PG&E and the Utilities Commission.

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

“It has been raining here all day, I mean real rain,” she said in an interview. “On such a day, there is no person who could analyze the situation and understand that there are almost no chances of a fire, and overcome it? I think no.

Last month, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors called on the Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E power outages. “Essentially, PG&E is telling its customers that they can choose a safe or reliable power source, but not both,” the regulatory decision says.

Terry Prosper, a spokeswoman for the Utilities Commission, said in an email that the PUC is “currently evaluating PG&E’s use of advanced power line safety settings,” including dates and locations of outages.

In the meantime, complaints continue to come.

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