New PG&E security measures in fire-prone areas lead to an increase in unplanned power shutdowns

Ask anyone in California’s forested communities if they would tolerate more blackouts in exchange for preventing devastating wildfire. The answer is likely a simple yes.

However, local residents complain that a new, experimental system installed on its circuit breakers in fire-prone areas to more aggressively disconnect electricity to prevent forest fires has created an intolerable situation. PG&E reported 329 unplanned blackouts caused by the new “Fast Trip” system since it was installed in late July – an average of about 36 blackouts per week.

The relentless power interruptions lead to a cascade of spoiled food, lost cell phone service and long waits for the lights to come on again.

US Congressman Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from Menlo Park, whose borough includes areas of Silicon Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains, said her office was inundated with voters complaining of an increase in unexpected and disruptive power outages.

The problem has re-emerged a question that annoyed California’s forest fire crisis years: Can PG&E provide both safe and reliable electrical service?

“Do you have to sacrifice reliability for security as a rate payer? It’s an unacceptable choice, ”said Eshoo. “PG&E is responsible for both.”

In a September 20 letter to Patricia Poppe, PG & E’s chief executive officer, Eshoo urged the company to consider alternatives and restore power faster.

“Security does not necessarily have to come at the expense of reliability,” the letter says.

The problem started in late July when PG&E increased the sensitivity of its circuit breakers after its devices were suspected of starting the mammoth Dixie Fire, which is still burning in the northern Sierra Nevada and is now the second largest fire in the state on record.

PG&E attorneys told a federal judge they believe the July 13th ignition of the Dixie Fire may have been prevented if the company’s sensors were programmed to turn off the electricity faster. Instead, the lines remained energized while a disturbance man traveled to the remote area to inspect the lines and arrived nine hours after the problem was discovered.

The “Fast Trip Mitigation” program was developed to automatically cut off the power if sensors detect that something has fallen on the cables. The aim is to prevent fire from breaking out while employees travel to remote fire hazard areas to inspect equipment.

It has been implemented over 11,500 miles of power lines where fire is most at risk – affecting 380,000 homes and businesses, a PG&E statement said in response to questions from The Chronicle on Friday. Technicians then need to inspect the lines and other infrastructure from the area of ​​impact to the end of the line “to ensure there are no issues that could cause wildfire when the power is turned back on,” the company said.

“We are aware of the difficulties this poses for our customers and are making a number of improvements that will reduce the impact,” PG&E said in the statement.

But local residents now dealing with routine power outages are asking the company to limit those automatic power outages.

“It’s this fast system that now knows if a bird lands on the line when a squirrel walks over the wire,” said Anthony Webb, a longtime resident of La Honda, San Mateo County. “What do we do now, butterflies?”

Webb, who has lived in rural San Mateo County for 46 years, said he was used to losing electricity in the winter when rain and wind storms hit his forested community. He is equipped to deal with the disturbance, to cook over a propane stove and to use flashlights or candles. He knows how to keep the fridge and freezer doors closed and hope for the best. But recent power outages – including the last two weekends of blackouts – have been extreme.

San Mateo County has passed rules over the years that make residents more dependent on electricity, such as banning wood-burning stoves or propane stoves in new buildings. These guidelines make it more difficult for residents to get by without electricity when they are staying more and more frequently.

“This makes problems with everyone’s diet questionable,” said Webb. “A lot of people have now resorted to generators. The problem with this is that they are inherently a fire hazard … since all generators light up, it’s only a matter of time before a minor accident can lead to a serious problem. “

PG&E spokeswoman Mayra Tostado told The Chronicle that the company believes the increased sensitivity of its sensors prevented fires from breaking out on dozens of occasions, including a Sept. 7 incident near Coarsegold, Madera County. A healthy tree crashed on power lines, broke two masts and took down primary cables, Tostado said. These lines “could cause a big wildfire if those settings weren’t in place,” and the lines remained energized, she said.

PG&E recognizes the inconvenience that more frequent power outages cause its customers. The company held town hall meetings for people in the Watsonville area and the San Lorenzo Valley this week so that company representatives could answer local residents’ questions.

On Thursday, Webb joined others in asking state regulators to intervene in a virtual meeting before the California Public Utilities Commission. Residents from North Bay to El Dorado County in the Sierra Nevada to the Santa Cruz Mountains begged PG&E officials to re-examine the breaker program.

A woman identified as Kelly Bates of Occidental, Sonoma County found that her community’s power inexplicably went out after a quarter of an inch of rain, limiting the risk of fire and negating the need for such a hair-triggering response from the utility’s sensors.

“Isn’t there a person at PG&E who could have overridden that?” Asked Bates.

A Somerset resident in El Dorado County said she lost electricity for between 24 and 48 hours straight at least twice a month, a dramatic increase she thought was incredibly stressful.

Webb warned that a power outage in its rural community, where landlines are becoming increasingly rare, often means the loss of cellular service. That puts the community at risk in emergencies from vehicle accidents to fires, he said.

Two hours after the meeting, Webb said he had lost power. Again.

In Santa Cruz County, Craig Chatterton said he had lost power twice and his neighbors more than half a dozen times in the past few weeks. He said he appreciated PG & E’s efforts to reduce the risk of forest fires, but wondered if the company was pushing its efforts too far.

“You treat it as binary: you can have security or power, but you can’t have both,” Chatterton said.

Julie Johnson is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @juliejohnson

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