PG&E Vows to Reduce Scope of Deliberate Blackouts to Stop Fires

By Mark Chediak | February 10, 2020

PG&E Corp. said it aims to shrink the breadth and duration of intentional blackouts during California’s wildfire season as part of a $2.6 billion plan aimed at improving safety.

The bankrupt utility giant wants to reduce the average geographic reach of deliberate blackouts by one-third and will try to restore power to affected areas 12 daylight hours after unsafe conditions pass. The goals were outlined in a wildfire mitigation proposal that was filed with state regulators Friday.

PG&E, forced into bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for sparking deadly wildfires, took the extreme measure of widespread shutoffs last year as a way to prevent blazes during dangerous weather. The blackouts resulted in more than 2 million people losing power at one point, provoking outrage as lives were disrupted and billions of dollars in economic activity were lost.

Governor Gavin Newsom — who has threatened a state takeover of PG&E if it can’t improve its safety practices — has been among the chief critics of the blackouts, saying the company needs to reduce their frequency and breadth. Meanwhile, California regulators have vowed to impose tighter restrictions on the shutoff practices and legislators have advanced a bill that would require utilities to compensate customers for costs resulting from blackouts.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons about how the public safety power shutoff works in our system and how it impacts our customers,” said Matt Pender, director of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program. “We’ve identified a number of actions to reduce that impact.”

California’s other big utilities also filed their wildfire prevention plans Friday. Edison International’s Southern California Edison said it plans to spend $3.8 billion on its wildfire-prevention efforts through 2022. Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric also vowed to reduce the size and scope of planned blackouts through grid improvements.

Microgrids, Helicopters

PG&E’s overall safety plan is expected to cost $2.6 billion a year through 2022. To limit blackouts, the utility will install hundreds of devices on its grid that will allow it to cut power to smaller sections of its network during dry, windy conditions, Pender said. The San Francisco-based company also will add more microgrids that can help communities keep the lights on during planned blackouts.

The utility plans to speed up power restoration times by using more helicopters as well as aircraft with infrared technology that can be used for patrols of power lines at night, he said.

Additional crews will be used to inspect lines for damage as well, PG&E said. The company aims to better coordinate with state and local agencies and improve its communications with customers about planned power outages.

PG&E will also continue its other fire-proofing work including its aggressive tree-trimming and grid hardening programs as part of its program, which requires approval from state regulators. The utility plans to prune or remove 1 million trees this year from power lines.

It will also install 240 miles of covered electric wires, up from 171 miles deployed last year, and add hundreds of additional weather stations and cameras to help it monitor fire conditions in its service territory.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s federal probation, has threatened to require the company to hire more tree trimmers after the utility said it has fallen short of some of its commitments of its fire-prevention plan last year.

Pender said the utility has confidence that it has the workforce needed to hit its goals this year.

Edison Plan

Edison, which also resorted to blackouts last year to prevent fires, said its safety work this year will include installing 700 miles of covered electrical wires less prone to sparking when touched by tree branches, almost twice the 372 miles deployed in 2019. The company also plans to install fast-acting fuses — which can quickly cut power to a damaged line — at more than 3,000 locations.

Edison also said it will consider burying power lines underground in areas that have been affected by public safety blackouts. It will explore creating microgrids, but only where they would be “technologically and economically feasible.”

–With assistance from David R. Baker.

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