PG&E power lines
PG&E power lines are photographed in Fremont
(Via CalMatters)

‘We’re here to talk about it’: PG&E addresses community concerns over increased, prolonged outages across county

After an increasing number of both unplanned and planned outages countywide over the past few months, PG&E representatives hosted two virtual community forums to address customer concerns. With the new “fast trip” setting, some outages have been sparked by birds, squirrels and vegetation, leading to hours of no power and no explanation for customers.

After more than 35 power outages sapped the energy from Santa Cruz County residents in recent months, Pacific Gas & Electric officials tried to soothe those frustrated customers via two community meetings Thursday, addressing concerns over the increased number of and longevity of power outages countywide. Separate Corralitos/Watsonville and San Lorenzo Valley meetings were held.

Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s vice president of wildfire mitigation operations and execution, emphasized that the outages are a direct result of continued efforts to increase wildfire safety in Santa Cruz County. To that end, PG&E installed enhanced power-line safety (EPLS) settings at the end of July — a “fast trip” setting — that shuts off power lines within a tenth of a second if triggered. In most recent outages, the safety setting was triggered by birds, squirrels, vegetation, balloons and car-to-pole collisions.

UPDATE: This piece, originally a preview of the meetings, now includes details from the Sept. 23 discussions.

“This year has been a huge uptick in activity, and we’re doing everything we can at PG&E to solve for wildfires,” he said.

Since the EPLS implementation, there have been a total of 12 outages in the Corralitos/Watsonville area and 25 outages in the San Lorenzo Valley area. The setting will stay in effect until the end of the fire season later this fall.

Quinlan said the shift to the fast-trip setting has led to a 50% decrease in potential ignitions that could cause a catastrophic wildfire.

“That’s why we’re doing it and we’re seeing tremendous results,” he said. “But the reliability performance as a result of these settings changes, especially in your neighborhood, is just unacceptable. We know that. That’s why we’re here to talk about it.”

PG&E’s Oakland K substation
(Via CalMatters)

Although the new safety setting has worked to decrease potential wildfires, the PG&E team said initial settings were too sensitive and have since been optimized to minimize power outages. As spokesperson Mayra Tostado said via email, the fast-trip outages have also affected anywhere from 697 to 2,401 customers on average, with some outages affecting over 5,000 county residents.

In addition to shifting the fast-trip settings on power lines countywide, staff also spoke about publishing PG&E performance reports and increasing communication to customers during and after outages.

Anna Brooks, director of local public affairs for PG&E, collected questions from customers and community members before the meeting and facilitated the Q&A portion of the meeting. During the later meeting, Brooks mentioned that PG&E had received more than 170 questions from customers during the presentation.

One customer asked why the enhanced power-line safety settings were put into place so quickly when customers were not made aware or prepared for the program.

Quinlan attributed the rapid installation of the safety setting to the dry conditions throughout the state, making affected areas more susceptible to wildfires.

The team further recommended its new app called “PG&E Report It,” allowing customers to submit photos of non-emergency potential safety concerns with the electric system. Customers will also receive notifications as their concern is being addressed and when it is resolved.

“The intent was to immediately provide a margin of safety, with the intent to optimize as we went along,” Quinlan said. “That is really the driving force behind it — it’s all about public safety and protecting customers and communities that we’re privileged to serve.”

The virtual wildfire safety seminars were held in partnership with the offices of Santa Cruz County Supervisors Bruce McPherson and Zach Friend.

“I can estimate — I don’t have an exact number — but would say about 35 have written or called [his office],” Friend told Lookout. “But many more have posted on social media, Nextdoor, etc. regarding it. Even though it’s a rural area, I believe there will be a robust turnout.

“Interest is high and frustration is even higher about the outages and lack of communication.”

Here’s what was known about the outages heading into the meetings.

How many outages have there been in the past few months, and how many people have been affected?

Some of the more robust outages of late include:

  • Over 5,430 customers in the Santa Cruz Mountains lost power Monday, with the outage lasting for nearly eight hours and affecting San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District campuses.
  • More than 2,300 customers in and around Corralitos lost power for multiple hours on Sept. 9.
  • Approximately 2,400 Corralitos residents lost power unexpectedly for nearly eight hours on Aug. 10, just two weeks after a prolonged outage on July 29 in the same area.
  • Nearly 5,000 customers in the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz lost power for an extended period of time on Aug. 5.

Which areas of Santa Cruz County are hit most frequently?

While it is not uncommon for many parts of Santa Cruz County to experience unexpected outages, South County, the San Lorenzo Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains are the regions most often affected.

These areas have commonly been designated as “high fire risk” due to drought-impacted and intensified conditions, made ever more critical following last year’s fire season. With the sensitivity of PG&E’s system, even the slight contact of a furry friend — squirrels chewing or touching the line, for example — can trigger a widespread and prolonged outage. The sensitivity aligns with the company’s implementation of a “fast trip” mechanism, shutting off automatically to quell potential of a spark or wildfire.

PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado said earlier this month that while this measure has increased safety in these high fire-threat communities, “it has resulted in more frequent and longer-duration outages.”

How long have the outages been, on average?

Much like the relative lack of hard data on the number of outages — both planned and unplanned — there isn’t much data available on how long the outages have been on average. Yet with PG&E’s implementation of the “fast trip” mechanism, county residents have felt the aftereffects for between four hours to upward of days without power.

On Monday, U.S. Rep Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) wrote to the company’s CEO, Patricia Poppe, demanding an explanation for the more frequent and recent power outages and urging PG&E to take action to ensure both safety and reliability to customers.

“Unexpected and days-long outages are more than an inconvenience,” wrote Eshoo, whose district includes much of the northern portion of Santa Cruz County. “They pose their own health and safety risks, particularly for the elderly and those living in more isolated areas, and the current situation cannot become the new normal.”

How has PG&E responded to customer concerns?

In early August, Tostado said the company had announced the 2021 Community Wildfire Safety Program and 2021 Wildfire Mitigation Plan to better assist residents statewide in lowering the risk correlated with the growing wildfire threat.

Yet, Eshoo wrote, the company has not been as forthcoming with constituents as could be hoped, and has “failed to provide adequate explanation to ratepayers whom the utility has left in the dark.”