Why PG&E’s wildfire safety triggers are sparking controversy instead of deadly blazes

During this tinder-dry wildfire season, a change to Pacific Gas & Electric’s power lines has dramatically reduced the risk of sparking calamitous and killer blazes.

But every time a rogue squirrel gets zapped, hundreds of rural residents are suddenly plunged into darkness – for hours, sometimes days.

Computer screens go blank. Stoves don’t work. WiFi goes dead. Refrigerators stop cooling.

“It’s like camping,” said Barbara Melchin, a 71-year-old widow who was forced to haul water in buckets during one recent outage in the Santa Cruz Mountains, because her well quit working. “Life is controlled by this thought: ‘Am I going to have power?’ ”

These unplanned outages are different than the now-familiar Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPSs), like the one Monday that pre-emptively shut off power for 24,000 customers in 23 counties because of windy weather and high fire risks.

In contrast, the new shutoffs are spontaneous and surprising, often on calm days.

After problems with PG&E’s equipment in past years ignited a series of deadly wildfires, the utility giant’s new strategy — called Enhanced Power Line Safety Settings (EPSS) – adjusts the sensitivity of electric equipment in high fire-threat districts and increases the speed at which a safety device can turn off energy in power lines.

Since its implementation last July, there have been 356 unplanned outages due to disruptions to power lines in PG&E’s service territory, causing chaos among blacked-out customers. There have been about 25 outages in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

LOS GATOS, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 7: Power lines along Summit Road in Los Gatos, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Power isn’t restored until workers inspect the entire line, sometimes by foot. That can take a long time. Each outage lasts between 9 to 12 hours, on average.

But the new strategy also averted a potential catastrophe last month in the historic town of Coarsegold, near Yosemite, by quickly shutting off power to 6,000 residents when a tree fell on a line during an unexpected lightning storm.

What we’re witnessing is a steep learning curve as the utility tries to prevent the catastrophic wildfires of recent years, said Steven Weissman, former administrative law judge for the California Public Utility Commission, which regulates PG&E, and a lecturer at UC-Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

“Where do we find that balancing point — where we can significantly reduce the risk of a fire, but at the same time not unnecessarily shut off power?” he said. PG&E “needs to have an opportunity to collect that data before anybody can reach a final judgment about the merits of what it’s doing.”

As climate change contributes to weather extremes, the vulnerability of the state’s power system has become increasingly apparent.

Two lawsuits have been filed on behalf of nearly 200 people alleging PG&E caused this summer’s massive Dixie Fire in Butte County, following several blown fuses and equipment malfunctions. Last month, PG&E was charged with manslaughter after a tree fell onto a line and sparked Shasta County’s 2020 Zogg Fire, killing four people.

PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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