Squirrels are to blame for the Ben Lomond power outage, PG&E says.
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Wildfires

PG&E sheds light on Ben Lomond power outage, what was tripping the ‘fast trip’ tech: It was squirrels

Thousands of Ben Lomond residents were angry at PG&E over the weekend as power went out. A spokesperson for the utility company told Lookout on Monday that squirrels biting or touching a line triggered the new “fast trip” mechanism.

Many Ben Lomond residents were left in the dark in more ways than one in recent days, as they experienced as many as four power outages with little explanation from Pacific Gas & Electric.

Over 3,000 customers in the San Lorenzo Valley had no power between Friday to Sunday afternoon. And Monday, after power had finally been restored the previous night, 2,000 of them spent another five hours in the dark.

The cause of the Ben Lomond outages? Squirrels either chewing or contacting the lines.

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This sensitivity in the power lines is a result of new technology the company is implementing to reduce the risk of wildfires in drought-stricken areas, according to PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado. In late July, the company implemented this “fast trip” mechanism, which automatically turns off stretches of power when a foreign object, such as a squirrel, touches a line.

“While this safety measure has increased safety in these high fire-threat communities, it has resulted in more frequent and longer-duration outages,” Tostado said via email.

Crews must patrol the entire circuit before restoring power. And PG&E cannot provide advanced notifications about when the outages will occur.

Tostado said PG&E has sent letters explaining the policy to residents who could be affected. She also said customers were updated about the outage via text and call. But still, countless Ben Lomond residents took to social media over the weekend to express outrage and confusion.

While this safety measure has increased safety in these high fire-threat communities, it has resulted in more frequent and longer-duration outages.

— PG&E

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, whose Fifth District includes the San Lorenzo Valley, said this system clearly needs improvement.

“We need to work more closely with PG&E to get this right, and make sure that safety improvements don’t lead to excessive or prolonged outages unnecessarily,” he posted on his Facebook page over the weekend. “They clearly need to make it work better.”

According to Tostado, PG&E plans to take action in the coming days to improve communication methods and update its systems, so the devices — aimed at reducing wildfire risk — are less sensitive to encounters with, say, squirrels.