Pacific Gas & Electric Co. representatives held an open house for customers to learn about the company’s 2019 wildfire mitigation plan Monday at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds.
Approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week, the plan includes pre-emptively shutting power off to more customers during high-fire-risk conditions, accelerating safety inspections of electric infrastructure, enhancing vegetation management around power lines and hardening the electric system by replacing equipment and installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered power lines.
It also calls for increased levels of inspection on lines, in addition to surveillance for wildfire conditions via weather monitoring systems, cameras, helicopters and ground crews.
At the event, multiple customers voiced concerns with the power shutoff aspect of the plan.
“We want all of our more than 5 million electric customers to be prepared for possible public safety power outages given the rapidly changing environmental conditions in our state,” said PG&E spokeswoman Brandi Merlo. The variables that influence power safety shutoffs are red flag warnings by the National Weather Service, low humidity levels of 20% or lower, sustained winds above 25 mphr, wind gusts in excess of 45 mph, temperature and moisture content of live vegetation and real-time observations from field crews, Merlo said.
The utility suggests customers prepare for outages that could last longer than 48 hours, and aims to give between 48 and 24 hours notice before shutting power off.
Merlo encouraged customers to ensure their contact information on file with PG&E is up to date.
“We can tell them to have a plan, we can tell them to be ready, but if they can’t be notified because we don’t have their correct phone number or email or cell phone, they won’t know about it, and they may be caught off guard,” Merlo said. She added that the company will provide additional outreach to “medical baseline” customers – residential customers with special energy needs due to qualifying medical conditions – in the event of a public safety power shutoff.
Between commercial and residential customers, PG&E has 31,700 energy meters in Calaveras County.
Merlo said the most likely electric lines to be considered for shutting off for safety will be those that pass through areas that have been designated by the CPUC High Fire-Threat District Map as elevated (Tier 2) or extreme (Tier 3) risk for wildfire. That includes both distribution and transmission lines.
“Because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions, your power may be shut off, even if (you) do not live or work in an area experiencing high winds or other extreme weather conditions,” Merlo added. “This is done for the safety of all communities and customers.”
Copperopolis resident Jeane Kennedy said she was concerned with finding a back-up power source during a shutoff situation lasting multiple days.
“We’ve lived up here for 20 years. We understand winter storms where you lose your electricity for maybe 24 hours … What PG&E is talking about is weather conditions that may last a few days,” Kennedy said. “Now we start getting a little bit farther into the problem, and so that’s why we want to prepare to just turn on the generator. We have a gas generator, so we have to store 5 gallon jugs of gas. Storing a bunch of gas is a little worrisome, but I guess that’s what we’re going to have to do ...”
Other customers echoed a similar sentiment.
“You have to plan for something that you don’t want to, otherwise you’re going to be stranded,” said Rick Gonzalez, another District 4 resident. “Basically you’ve got to fend for yourself. If the power goes down, you better come up with your own. It’d be nice to have a contingency plan set up by PG&E, ‘This is what you do now, these are your options.’ But there aren’t any ... There’s going to be mass panic, people running out of water, meeting electrical problems for their storage of food.”
At the open house, District 3 Supervisor Dennis Mills told the Enterprise that the company’s power shutoff plans may be the best solution until the utility can upgrade its lines, with reference to installing switch gear mechanisms to de-energize equipment.
“They’re one of the few (energy suppliers) that have not hardened their main lines,” Mills said. “Until they can get there, the safest method is to shut down the system.”
The utility plans to convert lines to underground and install more resilient poles along 150 of its approximately 7,100 miles of power lines by the end of 2019.
“We are starting this work in locations that are at the highest risk of wildfire, based on such factors as potential ignition risk associated with equipment, risk of wildfire spreading if one were to occur, and challenges to exiting a community in the event of an evacuation,” Merlo said. “We will continue rebuilding efforts in other high fire-risk locations across our service area over the next decade. As we’ve said consistently, it’s important to understand that undergrounding is not a solution to address the immediate wildfire threat our customers face right now.”