a power pole
(Via Pixabay)

PG&E must reduce outage impacts on customers, says California Public Utilities Commission

Following a series of Pacific Gas & Electric outages meant to reduce fire risk in parts of Santa Cruz County over the summer, the California Public Utilities Commission is requiring the company to mitigate the effects on residents who were left without power, sometimes for days. The commission responded to a letter sent by Santa Cruz County Chair of the Board of Supervisors Bruce McPherson in September.

The California Public Utilities Commission is requiring Pacific Gas & Electric to report on and reduce the impact of its fire-mitigating outages on customers in the Santa Cruz area after the county board of supervisors wrote to the commission requesting an investigation into the outages.

“These outages are unpredictable both in terms of when they occur and how long it will take for power to be restored, quite literally leaving thousands of residents in the dark and creating significant real-life impacts on their health and well-being,” Supervisor Bruce McPherson wrote in the Sept. 29 letter.

The outages are the result of PG&E officials’ efforts to reduce the chance of fires caused by power lines. At the end of July, the company installed enhanced safety measures known as a “fast trip” setting. The procedure shuts off power lines within a tenth of a second if triggered.

In many cases, outages were set off by birds, squirrels, vegetation, balloons and car collisions but would still take hours or days to be corrected. In response to the outcry, and after weeks of repeated requests by the board of supervisors for a meeting, PG&E held two virtual forums for residents in the Corralitos/Watsonville and San Lorenzo Valley areas.

In September, Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s vice president of wildfire mitigation operations and execution, said that by switching to the fast-trip setting, the company significantly reduced incidents that could have caused a wildfire.

Still, McPherson said residents and businesses experiencing outages, and left without any communications about when power would be restored, suffered loss of revenue and the ability to work and study, among other impacts.

Squirrels were to blame for one Ben Lomond power outage, PG&E said.
(Via Pixabay)

“The outages are more than just an inconvenience; they are a life safety and health issue,” McPherson wrote in the letter to the commission. “Without power, residents who rely on wells can’t pump water or use their sanitation systems. Losing power has a profound impact on seniors and others who need reliable power service for medical equipment.”

For these reasons, McPherson requested the commission investigate PG&E’s fast-trip settings protocols, how the utility communicates with the community about the setting and how it was trying to reduce its impact on customers.

In response, California Public Utilities Commission President Marybel Batjer wrote to PG&E CEO Patricia K. Poppe on Oct. 25, asking for details on the utility’s planning process for using the fast-trip setting — as well as plans on how it would reduce its impact on customers.

“Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s execution and communication of its wildfire mitigation device setting known as Fast Trip1 has been extremely concerning and requires immediate action to better support customers in the event of an outage,” wrote Batjer.

By Monday, Batjer said, PG&E must submit responses to questions about its preparations to the director of the commission’s Safety Enforcement Division. As part of the questions, PG&E will have to describe how much analysis it put into creating the settings and its impacts on customers, what criteria it uses to place a fast trip in a specific location and how it identifies which crucial infrastructure providers could be affected by an outage, among other questions.

At the same time, PG&E must start providing monthly reports detailing the number of customers, schools and hospitals affected by each outage and trends showing how long the outages lasted.