After widespread power shutoffs closed businesses, spoiled food and disrupted cell phone service last fall in West Marin, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company is working to make this fire season’s shutoffs smaller, shorter and smarter.
The company hopes to restore power twice as fast and reduce the number of affected customers by one-third compared to last year, when all of Marin had its power turned off for at least four days. It plans to send out a notification two days before a shutoff that estimates when power will be restored, and to ramp up its support of vulnerable residents.
To make shutoffs smaller, the utility is installing generators at substations so that low-risk areas can keep the lights on. Last year, key transmission lines that travel through high fire-threat areas such as the San Geronimo Valley were de-energized, leaving lower-risk areas served by those lines without power. But by Sept. 1, substations in Bolinas and Olema will be able to run off of temporary diesel generation, so the coast can keep power if the weather there is safe.
Across Marin, PG&E is installing 45 sectionalizing devices that are capable of remotely redirecting power, effectively breaking the grid into smaller parts.
“It’s like I have a leaky faucet in one of my bathrooms. I can either turn off the whole house outside—and so nobody can do dishes, nobody can get a drink of water, the washing machine can’t run—or I can reach underneath the sink in the bathroom and turn just the valve off for the sink in the bathroom while I make the repairs,” said public safety specialist Rob Cone. “That is what sectionalizing devices do for PG&E.”
The company is also installing another 20 weather stations in Marin, bringing the total to 45, so that meteorologists will have a more precise understanding of weather conditions.
The factors that are considered for a shutoff are a red flag warning from the National Weather Service, humidity below 20 percent, sustained winds above 25 miles per hour with gusts above 45 miles per hour, and dry vegetation on the ground. Based on weather data from the past 30 years, meteorologists with PG&E predict that Marin would experience one power shutoff each year, but given the recent increase in extreme weather events, spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said PG&E will likely turn off power several times this year.
To make the shutoffs shorter, the company is hiring more field crews, expanding its helicopter fleet from 35 to 65 and commissioning two airplanes for aerial line inspections. Inspectors will use infrared cameras so they can check lines for damage at night.
Tree-trimming contractors were deployed across the region this winter, at times angering residents because of a lack of communication before cutting. The vegetation management work is mandated by the California Public Utilities Commission, the public body responsible for overseeing the company.
PG&E’s equipment has been responsible for igniting multiple wildfires in Northern California, including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. On Tuesday, chief executive Bill Johnson pled guilty on behalf of his company to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of illegally setting a fire. Following the plea, a federal judge allowed PG&E to exit bankruptcy under a $59 billion reorganization plan.
The company will emerge with billions of dollars of debt, but Matt Pender, a director of wildfire safety for PG&E, said the financial hardship will not affect wildfire preparedness efforts.
Vegetation management is one of the few tools PG&E is using to protect its lines from starting more fires. Other years-long efforts to make the grid more resilient involve installing stronger poles, covering lines and burying lines underground.
Mr. Pender explained that it is not feasible to bury a large number of lines in a short amount of time, as many customers have called for. The work involves digging a trench to each individual home after burying the lines and taking down poles.
“So, it takes a long time, it is environmentally intensive and obviously resource-intensive in terms of construction crews,” Mr. Pender said.
Ms. Contreras could not say how many line miles have been moved underground in Marin.
Communication and outreach are another focus for PG&E after an admitted failure on that front last year. During the first planned power shutoff that affected Bolinas and Stinson Beach, the company’s call center and website crashed; to make up for the communication issues, the company gave residents a $100 credit and businesses a $250 credit. The website has been redesigned with fewer pictures so that it can handle six times as much traffic as last year’s peak.
PG&E employees are also working with independent living centers to support vulnerable residents, who are encouraged to contact the Marin Center for Independent Living at (415) 459.6425 prior to a shutoff if they are in need of portable backup power, accessible transportation, hotel vouchers, food stipends or medical baseline application assistance.