- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) told the California Public Utilities Commission last week that while its October decision to cut power to 60,000 customers during a three-day windstorm that heightened the potential for wildfires was a "last resort" decision, such actions can also can help keep customers and communities safe.
- PG&E cut power to customers in the North Bay and in the Sierra Foothills from Oct. 14 to Oct. 17, citing "weather and wildfire-risk conditions." It was the first time the utility used the technique, known as a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS).
- Wildfires have become a significant issue for electric utilities, both in terms of safety and liability. State regulators are moving swiftly to review fire mitigation plans ahead of the 2019 wildfire season.
PG&E has incurred more than $2 billion in costs, net of insurance recoveries, related to wildfires this year and faces billions more in potential liability, putting a premium on efforts to avert such disasters.
While the company's October actions drew some complaints, its new report defends the power shutoff as the right decision, though one to be used cautiously.
"Although we were able to leverage and successfully execute the PSPS process with zero safety incidents and no ignitions ... we continue to view PSPS as a tool of last resort among PG&E’s overall wildfire mitigation strategy," the utility said. "PG&E views this as an extreme measure that should be taken with great care."
It's impossible to know what would have happened had the lines remained energized. But PG&E's report found 18 instances of wind-related damage during the event, including damaged spans of conductor, insulators, fuses and a transformer. In addition, one pole was damaged.
All told, complaints were relatively low: 17 residential customers.
There were more claims filed with the utility, including more than two dozen for business interruptions and economic impacts, 17 for property damage and 102 for food loss. According to PG&E, however, "because of the safety-related nature of PSPS events, customers will not be reimbursed for associated losses."
PG&E "is in the process of making both short- and longer-term improvements for any future PSPS events," the utility said in an emailed statement. Among them are:
- Notifying customers between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. of possible upcoming de-energization,
- Reducing multiple notifications (especially for multi-premise commercial customers),
- Providing county offices of emergency services with more detailed information about affected customers, and
- Notifying communities of the estimated time of restoration more frequently.
PG&E, like all California utilities, wants to mitigate fire risks. The utility was hit particularly hard in the last season: The state's fire management agency has said electric equipment owned by PG&E caused 12 wildfires that killed 18 people and burned hundreds of square miles.
PG&E is not alone, however. Southern California Edison recently informed federal regulators that its equipment may have sparked a blaze last year that led to two deaths, and which may have ultimately created conditions for a subsequent mudslide that killed 21 people.