California Regulators Approve PG&E Blackout Plan

A Pacific Gas & Electric worker walks in front of a truck in San Francisco last year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

(CN) — Pacific Gas & Electric will spend up to $170 million on gas-powered generators to hopefully keep the lights on during pre-emptive blackouts this wildfire season, under a plan approved Thursday by California regulators.

With the peak months of the state’s fire season approaching, regulators agreed arming PG&E with an expensive fleet of mobile generators was an acceptable stopgap measure, despite air pollution concerns raised by environmentalists and residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission defended the decision by saying the state couldn’t afford a repeat of the widescale intentional blackouts utilized the last two years, noting that the upcoming fire season could be more intense following a dry winter.

“People want whatever it takes to keep the power on and unfortunately in this fall, it will be diesel,” said Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves.

This past fall, the state’s largest utilities shut down power on several occasions to reduce the chance of high winds sparking and spreading wildfires. The unpopular decision touched millions of Californians across the majority of the state’s counties, with local officials reporting outages lasting from two days up to 11 days.

Critics accused PG&E, the state’s largest utility, of botching the blackouts, which sparked lawsuits, legislation and a formal investigation by the commission.

After utilizing the intentional blackouts the last two years and leaving entire communities in the dark, PG&E is promising to reduce the length and scope of future shutoffs by bringing hordes of diesel generators into the foothills of Northern California.

The San-Francisco based utility plans to install mobile generators at 63 substations to be activated when it is forced to turn off transformers during dangerous wildfire weather. The generators will be installed in various fire-prone counties, including California’s renowned wine country and will supply mostly residential customers.

To supplement the substations, PG&E will build temporary microgrids specifically intended to provide electricity to “main street corridors” and ensure hospitals, police stations and stores have power during planned blackouts. The utility is currently building microgrids in Shasta, El Dorado, Nevada and Napa counties.

Microgrids are able to operate autonomously and provide electricity when the main grid is down for reasons like wind storms and repairs. The microgrids function as an island and are traditionally powered by diesel generators and in some cases by batteries.

Even with the generators, customers within the microgrids’ service areas still might go dark during pre-emptive events, as PG&E admits weather conditions and “operational considerations” prevent it from guaranteeing electricity. The largest 2019 event cut power to 967,000 customers and according to PG&E, the substation microgrids would have reduced that number by 90,000.

“Our specific objective with the development of temporary microgrids is to provide electricity to resources such as medical facilities and pharmacies, police and fire stations, gas stations, banks, markets and other shared community services when weather conditions make it unsafe to operate the grid,” said Debbie Powell, vice president of PG&E’s Asset & Risk Management, Community Wildfire Safety Program.

PG&E’s plan dedicates $94 million for the utility to reserve and lease hundreds of generators and the utility says it will be able to provide up to 450 megawatts during planned shutoffs. The remaining funds will go toward setting up temporary cabling, transformers and other necessary infrastructure, as well as fuel and mobilization costs.

The utility used a similar tactic last year but on a much smaller scale and specifically for critical facilities like hospitals and water treatment plants. PG&E will be required by February 2021 to report how many diesel generators were used and list the associated greenhouse gas emissions. Once fire season has concluded, the commission will first conduct a “reasonableness review” before PG&E will be allowed to recover program costs from ratepayers.

Dozens of residents called into the virtual hearing in opposition of PG&E’s proposal, noting the generators would bring unwanted noise and emissions to their communities. They urged the commission to shun the low-tech generator route and force PG&E back to consider cleaner alternatives.

“We should not be using the same technologies which got us into this mess and causing these wildfires,” said Harlow Pittinger with Sunrise Movement.

The commission cast the decision as an interim solution to give PG&E and the state’s other private utilities time to develop more environmentally sound microgrid technology, and cleared the plan in a unanimous vote.

“I’m very concerned about this fall and how much frankly dirty backup generation will be used, but I’m pleased with the temporary nature of this and I think we’ll get through the 2020 wildfire season and look forward to a much cleaner approach in the very near future,” said President Batjer.

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