Officials Demand PG&E Limit Shutoffs, Protect the Vulnerable

14 Aug 2020

After Pacific Gas & Electric’s damaging shutoffs last fall, state officials demanded Aug. 13 that it immediately work with county health officials to ensure the most physically vulnerable residents have essential power.

State officials applied a much heavier hand to PG&E than to the two private southern California utilities. Earlier this week, representatives from Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric presented their latest fire and outage reduction strategies for this year. These are required to factor in changes precipitated by Covid-19.

Last fall’s power shutoffs impacting 2 million “cannot be repeated,” California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer told PG&E interim president Michael Lewis. The utility’s phone lines jammed, its website crashed and communications with local safety authorities and customers were blacked out.

Lewis acknowledged last year’s communications fiasco with county, tribal and other local officials. Also, utility spokespersons could not address operational questions raised by local officials in areas without power. Since then, PG&E has hired 28 safety specialists to work with officials in 42 high fire threat counties. PG&E territory covers 47 counties.

The specific training and responsibilities of these specialists was not provided.

“The devil is in the detail,” Office of Emergency Director Mark Ghilarducci said. He said it was critical that utility specialists adequately engage with local officials leading up to and during shutoffs. That includes being able to answer questions in real time with up-to-date information.

PG&E has hired several retired CalFire and OES employees. CalFire Director Thom Porter wanted assurances that they would not use their former colleagues to get inside access to information and circumvent the chain of command.

Another issue is how PG&E uses its helicopters and other firefighting air equipment, possibly interfering with CalFire. Lewis said that PG&E will coordinate efforts and “steer clear of CalFire’s air space.”

Since last year, PG&E has installed generation backup at 51 of its substations to operate independent of the grid. It hopes to install 11 more by early September. The locations of substation backups were chosen based on where power was shut off last year.

Utility regulators asked Lewis for specifics on how those with recognized medical needs will be protected from loss of power, including those who live at mobile home parks with shared meters. The CPUC commissioners also wanted to know how PG&E would keep food banks up and running.

Those without individual PG&E meters in mobile homes will receive individual notice, Lewis said.

PG&E also plans to install 3,000 battery backup systems by early September to protect critical care customers—those suffering medically or financially. Last week, it announced it would tap into the California Public Utilities Commission’s Self Generation Incentive Program to fund the installations. Under this PG&E pilot program announced Aug. 4, SGIP funds fully cover eligible customers’ storage costs—from the system hardware to installation. PG&E also promised to ensure vulnerable customers will be notified of power issues.

The utility considers food banks essential services and has been working with 26 organizations to help keep power flowing, including with possible backup systems funded by SGIP and charitable grants, according to Lewis.

PG&E also will offer backup power to those dependent on pumped groundwater, who lose both power and water in a blackout.

Community members raised concerns about whether customers would be taught how to operate generators safely.

PG&E will have more than 200 outdoor community centers to provide those evacuated with power and medical kits, respecting local agencies’ Covid-19 distancing rules. Another 60 indoor centers are being set up.

CalFire’s Daniel Berlant said that if PG&E carries out requisite vegetation clearance as part of its 2020 wildfire reduction plan, the need for outages to avoid utility equipment sparked will “be significantly reduced if not eliminated.”

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