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PG&E seeks to limit impact of preemptive outages as Northern California fire season ramps up

The largest California utility updated state regulators about its efforts to reduce the impact on customers as it may have to cut their power to prevent wildfires.

(CN) — Pacific Gas & Electric said it was working to limit the number of customers impacted by preemptive power outages as the utility is refining programs it initiated in recent years to cut the risk of devastating wildfires in Northern California.

PG&E was among the electric utilities that updated the California Public Utilities Commission on Monday and Tuesday about their preparedness for public safety power shutoffs as the annual wildfire season gets underway in the western U.S. The public briefings coincided with two recent fires in the Yosemite National Park, which may be the harbingers of another season of massive fires as California is suffering through a relentless drought.

CPUC in June said it wanted to slap three utilities, including PG&E and Southern California Edison, with more than $22 million in fines for botching power shutoffs meant to reduce the threat of wildfires in 2020. The commission found the utilities failed to explain the reasoning and decision criteria behind the shutoffs and didn't give customers enough notice. The utilities, CPUC claimed, also did not accurately report when power was restored in certain areas.

The public safety power shutoffs, or PSPSs, are measures of last resort to prevent wildfires from igniting when high winds and accumulations of bone-dry vegetation create a high risk of power lines sparking a fire. PG&E had five PSPS events last year, compared to 6 in 2020 and 7 in 2019. The number of customers impacted dropped significantly, from more than 2 million in 2019, to 653,000 in 2020 and 80,400 last year.

Mark Quinlan, PG&E's vice president for electric system operations, told the commissioners that the utility has been refining its PSPS responses based on the experiences of recent years and that the number of shutoffs will further come down as the utility is putting 10,000 miles of distribution lines underground in and around high-risk areas in the coming years as well as installing stronger poles and covered distribution lines above ground.

"The largest infrastructure improvement is undergrounding lines," Quinlan said. "It's a 10-year program."

The various steps PG&E is taking to make the shutoffs less frequent and less disruptive range from improved weather modeling programs that analyze what weather conditions mean in terms of fire risk, to improving its PSPS agency portal to keep the information up to date and to better reaching out to its customers during outages.

The utility is also upgrading its PSPS emergency website so that customers will be able to see where they are in the restoration process when their power has been cut.

In addition to public safety power shutoffs, PG&E last year also rolled out an Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings program, which automatically shuts down a power line if an object comes into contact with it. The pilot program prompted a lot of unhappy responses, Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said at Tuesday's hearing.

Whereas preemptive shutoffs are only implemented during extreme wind conditions, the equipment that can automatically shut off a power line is enabled when vegetation in a high-risk area is considered dry. PG&E said it saw an 80% drop in ignitions in high-risk areas last year on lines with the equipment installed compared to a three-year average.

Many of the outages are caused by animals, such as squirrels tripping the equipment, however, and PG&E managers acknowledged that they could've done a better job last year reaching out to customers when the equipment automatically shut down a power line and it took a while to restore it.

PG&E is the largest electric utility in California, and as the main provider of power in remote areas of Northern California, its equipment has been implicated in some of the most devastating fires that have ripped through the state during the past decade. In January, a federal judge, who had been overseeing the company's probation for years, was sharply critical of PG&E, saying attempts to rehabilitate the utility had failed. 

The judge said the probationary period — which began in 2017 after PG&E was found guilty of six felonies in relation to the San Bruno pipeline explosion of 2010, in which 8 people perished and about 60 suffered injuries — had proved unfruitful because during that time PG&E "set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians.”


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