A new weather monitoring device installed by Pacific Gas & Electric on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road will add to a network of stations and provide hyper-local data that the utility says will help prevent blackouts in West Marin.
The station, a set of devices installed on a utility pole near the intersection with Nicasio Valley Road, will collect data on wind direction and speed, humidity and temperature. It is part of a project by PG&E that has installed more than 1,240 stations across the utility’s service area in the past three years, including 32 in Marin. The utility says the more devices it has in an area, the less likely that area is to undergo a planned public safety power shutoff.
“The weather stations play an important role in reducing the impacts of P.S.P.S. events on customers and making P.S.P.S. events smaller,” said Deanna Contreras, a spokeswoman for PG&E. “We initiate P.S.P.S. when the weather forecast is for such severe weather that people’s safety, lives, homes and businesses may be in danger of wildfires.”
A combination of factors can trigger the shutoffs, including humidity levels below 30 percent, sustained winds above 19 miles per hour with faster gusts, and dry vegetation on the ground.
The utility already has weather monitoring devices on Lucas Valley Road, Novato Boulevard, Old Rancheria Road in Nicasio, Rock Ridge Road in Woodacre, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard near Tocaloma and Drakes View Drive in Inverness Park, among other locations.
Mark Brown, executive officer of the Marin Wildfire Protection Authority, said PG&E consulted him to help decide where to install new stations. “It’s important that we have variation not just in where the stations are, but in the elevations. The valleys and the canyons and hills create microclimates,” he said.
Mr. Brown said the stations also help when firefighters are working to contain a fire, providing focused spot weather forecasts they can use to predict a fire’s behavior and movement.
In the absence of an active fire, Ms. Contreras said hyper-local live weather data from the stations helps precisely predict the duration and extent of any blackouts and limits their size. The devices also help the utility hone its forecasting model.
“As the model is improved, the forecast becomes more accurate, allowing PG&E’s meteorologists to limit the scope of P.S.P.S. events to the exact areas where the riskiest fire weather conditions are expected and to do so with higher confidence,” Ms. Contreras said.
The latest weather station, which can precisely measure these conditions, comes as Marin’s fire officials are facing a dire situation. October, typically the most dangerous month for wildfires in the county, is worse than usual this year. Forests are unhealthy because of the drought, and grasses and brush are totally desiccated, meaning that both light and heavy fuels are ready to go up in flames.
“Fuels that are not typically available to burn, except under extreme conditions, are now available to burn under normal conditions,” Mr. Brown said. “I’ve never seen the forest like this.”
In October 2019, much of Marin, and more than 30 other counties in Northern California, lost power for several days at a time as PG&E took preemptive measures to prevent fire amid strong, dry winds. Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed the massive blackouts on “greed and mismanagement” by the utility, which issued an apology. The situation improved last year, but the San Geronimo Valley endured a public safety power shutoff for a day in October, forcing schools and businesses to close.
Last month, the valley was struck again by a series of shutoffs, this time unplanned, when power lines came into contact with objects and de-energized. The blackouts posed a particular challenge for business owners like Loring Jones, who runs the Lagunitas Store. “Every time it happens, your heart just sinks,” Mr. Jones said. “We’re rushing to get the generator on and get the perishables into the walk-in.”
Since the new weather station was installed, there have been no blackouts in the valley, although Mr. Brown cautioned that the stations won’t necessarily help with unplanned outages in the future. Last month’s outages happened because PG&E increased the sensitivity of its circuits in late July. It did so by disabling its reclosers, the devices that re-energize the circuits after an object hits the line. This setting, known as “fast-trip,” requires crews to visually inspect power lines before restoring power.
“While these adjustments make our electric system safer for our customers, they may also result in more frequent, longer-duration outages,” Ms. Contreras said. “We understand the impact that losing power has on our customers’ lives, and we are working hard to reduce the outages communities are experiencing.”
Mr. Brown said PG&E could do a better job explaining the heightened sensitivity to customers, but that it’s an important safety measure. When power lines do hit the ground, he said, “we find that the recloser started the fire more often than not.”