power line stock

There may not be any wildfires but that didn’t stop the roasting of PG&E at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors regular meeting on Oct. 15.

Sonoma County Seal vertical

The board reviewed the impact of the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) initiated by PG&E Oct. 9 through 11.

The initial estimates put the cost of the shutoff at $1.3 million for all government services within the county, including affected cities, fire departments and water agencies.

The cost solely to the county was $315,000. For the county, the total included $15,000 in damaged equipment. Staff said $125,000 could be recouped by the county. Staff said only $125,000 was eligible for reimbursement as the total number for the county included regular staff hours.

The private sector impact has a broad estimate for the first day, based on an established formula, stating between $6.5 and $15 million was lost. This does not account for spoilage of perishable products such as food, as they generally takes more than one day to go bad.

A later estimate from county staff claimed 195,000 people were affected, noting that roughly 80% of the forecasted population lost power.

Supervisors were quick to praise the county’s efforts at communication and response and just as quick to slam PG&E for its shortcomings.

“Communication was a massive failure, not on our part,” District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

“You (PG&E) knew what you needed to do but you didn’t do it,” Zane continued, noting that PG&E’s website — which was supposed to provide a map of outage areas — was down for a significant period during the outage.

District 4 Supervisor James Gore agreed, noting that increased traffic didn’t fully explain away why the site crashed.

District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin wasn’t convinced that the shutoff needed to be enacted as early as it did, on Oct. 9. She said she didn’t notice any high winds at that time.

Staff said that at Mt. St. Helena, top wind speed was 77 mph, with 55 mph gusts in other areas.

“I’m still a disbeliever,” Gorin said, saying she lives near a large distribution line where it wasn’t windy. “They pulled the plug, I think, a day early.”

Supervisors also noted that they were initially denied access to the control center for PG&E and said that conference calls with PG&E and other counties were hard to follow and didn’t allow for representatives to get answers to their questions.

Zane also noted that liability issues were a factor in her frustration, citing an elderly man who had fallen while trying to pull down his garage door while the power was out.

“They’re manufacturing a crisis and passing the liability onto us,” she said.

District 2 Supervisor David Rabbitt said he preferred an outage to a wildfire, but said that the standards for what the infrastructure could withstand seemed low.

“This is going to happen until infrastructure is improved,” he said.

As far as what the county did well, it listed several items, including outreach to the county’s vulnerable population and Spanish communication. Staff said they reached out to a vulnerable population list they had made as well as a “medical baseline” list from PG&E.

“We should send PG&E that bill,” Zane said.

In terms of solutions, the board had several ideas.

Gore posited that PG&E should test its system — essentially what this PSPS was — during a non-hazard time in order to better work out the kinks.

Once the state has come down with its mandates, there may also be the option the break PG&E up and turn local control of the infrastructure to municipalities including the county. The board noted that San Francisco was recently blocked from attempting this but also noted how well the city of Healdsburg was able to communicate with PG&E as it operates its own power company and leveraged that to give high priority to its communication.

Micro-gridding was also suggested as a strategy. The county is also requesting additional wildfire monitoring cameras from PG&E, asking for another 12. The county has three now as well as six operated by PG&E, all of which are maintained by the county.

No matter the solution, however, the board acknowledged it was going to take time to implement. That time worried the supervisors, as the longer the time between incidents, the further the issue would be in the public’s mind.

“We’re all rattling the cages” of PG&E, Hopkins said, but said it would be up to the state and supervisors to provide follow through.

“We’re searching for that accountability factor,” Zane added.

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