Shutoffs cause lost sales, spoiled food

11/06/2019

The lights came back on in West Marin last week, but the economic impact from recent power shutoffs by Pacific Gas and Electric will be felt for months.

When power was restored for most of the county last Wednesday, the towns of Marshall, Tomales and Dillon Beach remained without for another two nights. During the shutoff, Tomales and Dillon Beach also dealt with an influx of evacuees from Sonoma County, where 186,000 people fled their homes under threat of the massive Kincade fire. Bodega Bay and Valley Ford, less than 10 miles north, were part of the area’s mandatory evacuation zone.

Lawson’s Landing accepted roughly 300 people to its campground, and more stayed at overnight rentals in Dillon Beach.

In Tomales, Ted Wilson, the owner of the William Tell House, cancelled overnight reservations so evacuees could stay for free in the rooms. He organized three dinners for evacuees and those without power to enjoy a hot meal. 

“There was a lot of tension building in town, so we switched our gears into feeding people to kind of cope with it,” he said. With help from nearby restaurants, Mr. Wilson compiled an impressive array of donated food, which workers volunteered to cook. “People were eating phenomenally,” he said.

Most Tomales residents rely on an electrically pumped well for water, so they know to prepare with buckets for drinking water and toilet flushing. Mr. Wilson bought a second generator in addition to the one used for refrigeration so his well could be pumped and residents could fill their containers to go.

Despite the good feeling of a community banding together, there was an economic downside to closing business to offer free goods and services. Mr. Wilson estimated between $18,000 and $22,000 in lost sales. Together with the costs of a recent renovation, the business will not have much of a cushion for the winter. “We will make it, but it won’t be comfortable,” he said. “We are probably not going to recover from all of this and get back on stable ground until February.”

For oyster farms and seafood restaurants along Tomales Bay, the impact of the outage hinged on whether businesses had enough functioning generators.

Hog Island Oyster Company lost an estimated $40,000 in onsite sales at its farm, which closed for five days, said retail manager Silvester Dacosta. Although the farm has an industrial generator, it was giving inconsistent voltage and was sent to the manufacturer for repairs. Oysters could not be harvested because workers had nowhere to put them. The company was forced to cut hours for staff and turn down orders from restaurants because it did not have enough product; food was thrown out, and oysters that were already harvested were transferred from chilled water to ice, and then back into the chilled water when power was restored. The shock from the transfer cost the farm 5 to 10 percent of those  oysters. The farm also threw out over $500 worth of food.

Tony’s Seafood, the bayside restaurant operated by Hog Island, lost an estimated $20,000 in sales, according to Mr. Dacosta. “It’s hard on the company as a whole,” he said.

Tomales Bay Oyster Company avoided losing any product by keeping its generators running day and night. “We spent more money on gas this week,” said Heidi Gregory, the farm manager. “It was very loud with the generators, but all and all we managed.”

Up the road, Nick’s Cove restaurant stayed open with a generator. Local employees stepped up by picking up shifts from those evacuated from Sonoma County, manager Wade Nakamine said. But the restaurant had slower traffic and the cottages had fewer overnight guests, coming at an inopportune time, before the winter downturn. 

The Marshall Store’s only generator was enough to power its freezers, but not all of its food could be kept cold. Owner Shannon Gregory estimated $4,000 worth of food was thrown out or given away, and over $25,000 was lost in sales while they were closed. He is looking into buying a permanent generator that will switch on automatically. “It will basically pay for itself,” he said.

The northern area of West Marin was left without power for an extra two days because its location on the grid meant it took longer for PG&E to inspect it. Throughout the company’s service area, PG&E reported that inspectors found at least 156 instances of weather-related damage, from toppled lines to tangled trees.

The company filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of this year following a flood of lawsuits from wildfire victims. The move allowed it to restructure its debts, and now the utility is working with the state to come out of bankruptcy. 

Meanwhile, Governor Gavin Newsom has repeatedly criticized the utility’s failure to prioritize public safety. “Outdated infrastructure, lack of preparation and a failure to lead and be accountable to their customers and communities led PG&E to today’s overreliance on, and botched implementation of power shutoffs,” he said in a statement. 

Gov. Newsom will accelerate the process for the company to exit bankruptcy by convening a group of PG&E executives, shareholders, creditors and wildfire victims this week, with the goal of making the company safety-oriented and responsive to customers.

“If the parties fail to reach an agreement quickly to begin this process of transformation, the state will not hesitate to step in and restructure the utility,” he said.

PG&E announced last week that it will credit customers—$100 for residents and $250 for businesses—affected by the Oct. 9 shutoff because of issues with its website and call center. The utility does not plan to offer credits for the shutoff last week or for future shutoffs. Customers in the southern areas of West Marin will automatically see the adjustment on their next bill.

With two outages under their belt, the fire stations in Bolinas and Stinson Beach have become de facto centers for people to gather, charge devices and ask for information. 

At their respective monthly meetings last Monday, the towns’ fire protection district boards discussed lessons learned from the first outage. Kenny Stevens, the Stinson Beach fire chief, is looking into buying five Honda 2200 generators to replace the station’s 30-year-old generators that take multiple people to lift. The lighter devices will allow the department to bring power to people’s homes, so they don’t necessarily have to charge medical devices at the station.

At the Bolinas Fire Protection District board meeting, the discussion centered on AT&T because residents reported inoperable landlines, which many people retained to use in situations like this one. Fire chief George Krakauer has tried to figure out why some phones were not working. “We’ve gotten some answers, mostly generator issues, or there not being one, or it not being turned on in time, which backs it up,” he said. “To me, it’s not quite clear.”

The board is interested in writing a strong letter to AT&T criticizing its lack of preparedness. “We understand that you’re slammed,” Jim Ritchie, the board chair, said. “But you made a contract with customers, and it’s vital to the health of the community that you honor that
contract.”

Mike McGuire, the state senator representing the North Coast, introduced legislation earlier this year that would mandate telecommunication providers have backup power systems for their cell towers in high fire risk areas. The Federal Communications Commission reported that 160 of Marin’s 280 cell towers were out of service during the outage. 

“Telecom executives assured us this worst-case scenario—hundreds of cell towers going down due to the lack of power—wouldn’t happen,” Sen. McGuire said. “It’s simply not true. It’s time California steps up and mandates cell towers have backup power.”

The California Public Utilities Commission, which is responsible for overseeing PG&E, has also announced it is taking action to hold utility companies accountable to ensure that the state’s experience with power shutoffs this year is not repeated.

“The state cannot continue to experience [public safety power shutoff] events on the scope and scale Californians have experienced this month, nor should Californians be subject to the poor execution that PG&E in particular has exhibited,” Marybel Batjer, the president of the commission, said in a press release last week. “The [public utilities commission] will demand that utilities prepare for and execute [power shutoff] events in a way that greatly reduces impacts on
Californians.”

The commission will launch a formal investigation to ensure its regulations were followed by PG&E and other utility companies that initiated a shutoff. It will also look at actions that utilities can take in the next six months to minimize impacts of future shutoffs by increasing grid redundancy and segmentation, hardening equipment and expanding 2020 wildfire mitigation plans, which are now required from utilities in California.