During this tinder-dry bushfire season, Pacific Gas & Electric’s power line changes have dramatically reduced the risk of catastrophic and deadly fires.
But every time a vagrant is hit, hundreds of villagers are suddenly plunged into darkness – for hours and sometimes days.
Computer screens go blank. The ovens are not working. Wi-Fi goes out. Refrigerators stop cooling.
“It’s like camping,” said Barbara Melchin, a 71-year-old widow who was forced to carry water in buckets during a recent power outage in the Santa Cruz Mountains because her well stopped working. “Life is controlled by this thought:“ Will I have strength? “”
These unplanned power outages are different from our familiar public safety power outages (PSPS), such as that Monday, when 24,000 customers in 23 counties were proactively shutting off power due to windy weather and a high risk of fire.
On the contrary, new blackouts occur spontaneously and unexpectedly, often on calm days.
After problems with PG&E equipment in years past have caused a series of deadly wildfires, the energy giant’s new strategy, dubbed Enhanced Power Line Safety Settings (EPSS), adjusts the sensitivity of electrical equipment in high-fire hazard areas and increases the speed at which the device safety can cut off energy in power lines.
Since its introduction in July last year, there have been 356 unplanned power outages due to power outages in PG&E’s service area, causing havoc among disconnected consumers. There were about 25 blackouts in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Electricity is not recovered until workers inspect the entire line, sometimes on foot. This can take a long time. Each outage lasts an average of 9 to 12 hours.
But the new strategy also staved off a potential disaster last month in the historic city of Corsegold, near Yosemite, by quickly shutting off the power of 6,000 residents when a tree fell on a line in an unexpected thunderstorm.
“What we are seeing is a steep learning curve as the utility tries to prevent catastrophic wildfires in recent years,” said Stephen Weissman, a former administrative justice judge for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates PG&E, and a lecturer at UCLA Goldman. at Berkeley. School of Public Policy.
“Where can we find a balancing point – where can we significantly reduce the risk of fire, but at the same time not turn off the electricity unnecessarily?” he said. PG&E “must be able to collect this data before anyone can come to a final judgment about the merits of what it does.”
As climate change contributes to extreme weather events, the vulnerability of the nation’s energy system is becoming increasingly apparent.
Two lawsuits have been filed on behalf of nearly 200 people claiming PG&E caused a massive fire in Dixie in Butte County this summer after several blown fuses and equipment malfunctions. PG&E was charged with manslaughter last month after a tree fell on a line and triggered the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, killing four people.
PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in a 2018 fire that nearly destroyed the city of Paradise. The camp fire, the deadliest in the country in a century, was caused by high winds that broke worn out equipment on an old lattice steel tower, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.
So now PG&E is taking a zero-tolerance approach to the “spark discharge” that occurs when an electrical current in a line is interrupted and jumps through the air, releasing sparks.
With 85% of California now suffering from severe drought, “this is very, very dangerous,” said Mark Quinlan of PG&E, vice president of wildfire mitigation and response operations.
To prevent arcing, lines now shut down at the first sign of a power outage.
After the adjusted settings took effect, PG&E reports a 60% reduction in potential fires between July 28 and September 18 compared to the same period last year. The utility predicts that more normal settings will be restored with the winter rains, reducing unplanned outages.
The strategy targets areas of the state that are harsh, inaccessible, and most at risk of major burns, such as parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Ridge in East Bay.
PG&E has always had the ability to adjust the sensitivity of line safety devices called autoreclosers. This is how workers stay safe when repairing live lines.
What has changed is the widespread use of this strategy. Advanced power line safety settings have been installed on over 11,500 miles of lines in 169 circuits serving 380,000 customers.
The shutdown can be caused by a dangerously felled tree, but also by much smaller things. “It could be a squirrel, it could be a bird, it could be a metal ball, it could be a car crashing into a pole,” Quinlan said.
Even tiny particles of dust, smoke or fog can cause problems. And since power grids are so large, an accident can cause power outages in homes miles away.
Residents are furious at the targeted denial of service, even as tariffs rise. While forest fires are dangerous, they said it is also dangerous to cut off electricity.
“They turned us all off,” said Eric Horton, a third-generation resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“We need security and reliable energy,” he said. “Electricity is a critical infrastructure in modern society.”
The elderly and the chronically ill rely on electricity for medical equipment, he said. Fixed income people have lost hundreds of dollars worth of products. Professionals rush into town to find a Wi-Fi signal for customer meetings.
As Horton noted, as soon as the electricity goes out, hundreds of gas generators immediately go off, representing a new source of ignition. When the well is powered by electricity, residents are left without water, so they cannot extinguish the flames. If there is a fire and there are no landline telephones, people will not be able to call the emergency services to get help.
In the house of Angela Yapaola, the electricity went out during the first hours of Labor Day. Unable to prepare breakfast, the family decided to go out to eat. Six-year-old daughter Olivia rushed for her boots – and in the darkness bumped into the wall.
Olivia was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital, bleeding from a golf-ball-sized wound in the middle of her forehead. There, a plastic surgeon placed three layers of sutures through the muscles and skin to close the wound. The scar can be permanent.
In response to complaints, PG&E says it is trying to adapt its changes. It fine-tunes its settings and reduces the number of houses in each circuit, so there are fewer outages. These are cleaning lines. Wraps the poles to protect against squirrels. It also strengthens towers, pillars, and wires. Ultimately, he seeks to bury about 10,000 miles of lines.
But other strategies are also important, Weissman said.
It is important to identify places where electricity cannot be cut off – where residents, especially the elderly and low-income people, rely on it for health and safety, he said.
But just as important, he said, is our personal responsibility to prepare for a power outage with candles, flashlights, water, backup batteries and other consumables.
“We need to think about reliability differently than we thought before,” he said.