California on Edge as PG&E’s Power Outage Plan Goes Into Effect

Earlier this year, Pacific Gas & Electric warned that its
new fire-prevention
grid outage
 plan, meant to prevent a repeat of last year’s
deadly Camp Fire that drove it into bankruptcy, could leave
hundreds of thousands of its customers in the dark. 

High winds and dry condtions have forced PG&E to put this
plan into action this week.

On Tuesday, PG&E announced plans to cut power to about
525,000 customer
 accounts across 34 counties over the next two
days. It’s by far the biggest public safety power shutoff (PSPS)
event in state history, dwarfing the 60,000 customers that PG&E
blacked out in its first event last year.

At midnight Tuesday, PG&E cut power to about 185,000
customers in Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. These North
Bay counties have been home to some of the state’s deadliest
fires, including the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, which investigators
concluded was sparked by a private electrical system, not by
PG&E’s wires, on a similarly windy and dry day two years
ago. 

PG&E’s plan also called for a de-energization of
another 300,000 customers in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo,
Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties on Wednesday. This includes
parts of Oakland, San Jose and other San Francisco Bay Area cities,
where school districts closed schools and emergency responders
prepared to aid residents without power. 

While PG&E’s maps indicate
areas likely to be affected, just which sections of the grid will
be powered down, or for how long, will be up to the complex
calculations of weather, wind, vegetation and grid network risks
guiding the utility’s PSPS protocols. 

The same hot, dry and windy conditions are forcing
California’s other two big investor-owned utilities to prepare
power shutoffs too. Southern California Edison said it may have to
cut power to more than 170,000
customers
 across eight counties, while San Diego Gas &
Electric warned
about 30,000
 customers could face outages. 

PG&E in the hotseat

But PG&E’s de-energization efforts are under particular
scrutiny. The utility’s role in starting the Camp Fire and other
fires in 2017 led directly to the tens of billions of dollars in
liabilities that drove it to bankruptcy, where it remains. And the
state’s new $21
billion wildfire fund
, which protects SCE and SDG&E from
insolvency, specifically exempts PG&E unless it emerges from
bankruptcy by June 2020, leaving it open to massive new liabilities
if its equipment sparks a fire this year. 

At the same time, PG&E is following the California Public
Utilities Commission’s expanded
scope
 for de-energization, both to cover a much
larger part
 of the state, and to include high-voltage
transmission lines (PDF)
whose de-energization could force power outages in far-away
areas. 

That’s why this week’s power outages may affect customers in
areas that aren’t experiencing any extreme winds or heat, Sumeet
Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety
Program, said during a Tuesday night press conference. 

PG&E also can’t precisely predict when power will be
restored for every customer, since it must inspect and clear power
lines before re-energizing them, he said. This work will also
provide the data to determine just how many potential fires the
power shutoff may have prevented. 

PG&E’s October 2018 de-energization left much of the town
of Calistoga without power for two days. That drew complaints and
damage claims from businesses, but it also likely prevented
wildfires from starting, utility inspectors later said. The next
month, PG&E considered but decided against de-energizing the
grid that included the transmission line that started the Camp
Fire.

Balanced against the public good of preventing fires is the need
to prevent de-energizations from causing public harm. The CPUC
requires utilities to provide public outreach and support during
PSPS events, including setting up community centers where families
can recharge phones or other electronics, stay cool and receive
medical treatment and referral if necessary. 

Utilities also must take steps to aid sick or elderly customers
who need electricity to survive, and plan for contingencies to
power state, county and city emergency responders and critical
services.

PG&E’s preparations for this week’s event showed some
flaws on this front. For example, Singh was unable to tell
reporters at Tuesday’s press conference whether or not the
Caldecott Tunnel, a major traffic route for East Bay commuters,
would have the backup generation on hand necessary to keep it open
if the grid serving it was forced to de-energize. 

As we’ve previously noted, PG&E’s sole proposal for
a “resilience
zone
” microgrid project in the Sonoma County town of Angwin
was postponed this summer due to design challenges — largely,
the need to prevent the microgrid from causing its own fire risks
by rerouting many of its overhead circuits underground. 

Solutions range from tree-trimming to solar-storage systems

PG&E has invested billions of dollars in power line
inspections, vegetation clearing and other fire-prevention
activities, although it is behind on its tree-trimming schedule. At
the same time, the surest solutions to preventing power lines from
sparking fires, such as undergrounding circuits, are expensive and
time-consuming. 

At the same time, California policymakers have been looking to
distributed energy resources as part of the solution to the state’s
wildfire-power grid challenge. Most of these are longer-term
projects, such as expanding the still-challenging commercial
opportunties for microgrid
projects
 in the state. 

These opportunities extend to market-driven approaches. Last
month, the CPUC approved changes to the state’s Self-Generation
Incentive Program (SGIP) to direct $100 million of its budget
toward disadvantaged or medically vulnerable residents of high fire
risk areas, in the form of a highly generous $1-per-watt
incentive
 for solar-battery systems. 

Most solar-battery systems aren’t set up to run during
outages, but they can be. Tesla started
sending
 Northern California customers alerts this week,
warning them to keep their electric vehicle batteries fully
charged. Owners of Tesla Powerwall battery systems also received
“storm watch” alerts suggesting a full charge-up to prepare for
outages, rather than allowing the battery to perform load-shifting
or other economic tasks. 

Ravi Manghani, head of solar research for Wood Mackenzie Power
& Renewables, noted that this week’s forecast for sunny skies
could allow solar-storage systems to charge up enough during the
day to “come to the rescue” for essential household
needs. 

Manghani also noted that advocates such as Tesla and
rival solar-storage
installer Sunrun
 have been pushing for policies that promote
distributed energy resources as one solution to the state’s PSPS
situation.

Along with this week’s run on batteries, flashlights, bottled
water and other emergency supplies, news reports have tracked a
rise in diesel generator sales in California this year, driven by
customers in more remote regions where the threat of multi-day
blackouts is most likely. 

Given the public attention to this week’s outages, “the
market should see an uptick in battery storage sales, supported by
recent carve-outs for vulnerable homes under the SGIP incentive,”
Manghani said. 

At the same time, “there are no carbon-free distributed
solutions that can provide reliable customer back-up lasting for
five days,” at least not at anything approaching a reasonable
cost, he warned.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
California on Edge as PG&E’s Power Outage Plan Goes Into Effect