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PG&E is unrolling a plan to try and make its Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) shorter in duration and smaller in size this wildfire season. The utility said that it’s also aiming to provide more timely and accurate communications to its customers about PSPS’ by bolstering the website capacity and improving customer alerts. The PSPS plans were discussed during a special webinar on May 6 for Sonoma and Napa county customers.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on many day-to-day activities and events, it cannot stop the upcoming fire season and the potential for PSPS events.

Based on historical data the average amount of PSPS events for Sonoma County was one to three a year, however in 2019, the county saw five shut off events according to Joe Horak, a PG&E senior manager for the North Bay and Sonoma Division.

The first power shutoff to occur in Sonoma County in 2019, was on Oct. 8. The rest of the shutoffs occurred later in the month when the Kincade Fire started on Oct. 23. Power was shut off on Oct. 23, Oct. 26 and again on Oct. 29. Power was then restored to most customers by Nov. 1. An additional PSPS occurred on Nov. 21.

Due to the Kincade Fire, gas was also turned off throughout parts of Sonoma County as an additional safety precaution.

There are several different factors that could lead to a PSPS, including low humidity levels of 20% or lower, forecasted strong winds above 25 mph, dry fuel vegetation and the issuance of  a red flag warning.

“We carefully review a combination of many criteria when determining if power should be shut off for safety,” Horak said.

Transmission and distribution lines most likely to get turned off are those that go through high fire risk areas. Fifty percent of PG&E’s service areas are in high fire threat districts and Sonoma County is in a tier 2, “Elevated” and a tier 3, “Extreme,” fire threat district. Sonoma County has 3,201 miles in total overhead distribution lines and 611 miles in total overhead transmission lines. Transmission lines are for large distances and often have higher voltage and therefore can transport more electricity. Distribution lines are for shorter distances and have lower voltage, transporting electricity locally.

PSPS events are issued to help reduce the risk of wildfire within these high risk areas, however, with the shelter-in-place order and many families relying on power for at home work, school and other activities, the idea of a PSPS event in the middle of a quarantine can be daunting — another reason PG&E is working to create shorter and smaller events.

“Wildfire season is just around the corner. We understand the importance of keeping the lights on, especially given the current stay at home orders and we are determined to do everything possible to address both the impacts of COVID-19 and the threat of catastrophic wildfires,” said Vanessa Bryan, a PG&E local customer experience manager who hosted the webinar.

Smaller in size 

The utility is working on sectionalizing the electric grid to limit PSPS impacts by installing 600 new sectionalizing devices this year to separate the grid into smaller parts to reduce the amount of customers who are impacted by a PSPS.

According to Horak, 45 sectionalizing devices are planned to go up throughout Sonoma County.

“PG&E’s goal this year is to reduce the number of customers affected by each potential PSPS event by nearly a third compared to similar events last year,” Horak said.

Additionally, the company is working to add remote or automated capabilities to these devices in order to further reduce the number of customers impacted. It’s also installing microgrids that use generators to keep lights on, as well as targeting underground work as a part of system hardening.

Shorter power shut offs

PG&E is also setting the goal of restoring power to customers twice as fast, after severe weather has passed, by increasing the number of helicopters it has from 35 to 65 and adding two new airplanes for aerial inspections, and by increasing field crew inspections.

More timely and accurate info

Getting easy access and timely information was a struggle last year during the October PSPS event, since the PG&E website was overloaded with users and often crashed, making it difficult to view the GIS map or to use the address look-up tool, both of which allowed users to look up if their area was at risk for being impacted by an anticipated PSPS.

Jim Wickham, a PG&E public safety specialist, said the company is working on bolstering the PG&E website for heavier traffic and making improvements to customer alerts.

Wickham noted that this year notifications will include more details on when the power will be shut off and restored.

“We acknowledge that that was a pain point last year that some folks struggled to understand our maps and the different tools,” said Matt Pender, the director of the community wildfire safety program. He said the maps have been enhanced to be more precise and exact and they’ll continue to offer the address look up tool so folks can see if their home will be impacted by a PSPS.

A lack of cell phone coverage during the October 2019 PSPS events also created a challenge for being able to view the power shut off maps, adding to the pain point of an overloaded websites.

“While it is there job and their purview to assess the actions they need to take to keep their cell phone system working, we are partnering with them closely to make sure that they have all of the information they can and that they are prepared when these events may occur,” Pender said. “So it is a partnership and it’s something we’re continuing to work through with them. We anticipate that the outcomes in terms of potential for lost cell phone service will be better this fall and this PSPS season than they were in 2019.”

Wickham said they will also notify customers two days before a shutoff and up until the shutoff occurs. He said they plan on enhancing their meteorology technology and adding more weather stations so meteorologists can better pinpoint when severe weather is likely to occur.

“This real-time information provides us with wind speed, wind gusts, humidity and temperature and this information is used by our meteorologist team in San Francisco to help make decisions on whether a PSPS will take effect,” Wickham said.

The goal is to have 400 more weather stations up and running by 2022, however there may be a slight delay since the station manufacturer had to temporarily close due to COVID-19 but has since reopened.

Bryan said they will also make it easier to sign up for the medical baseline program by eliminating the medical provider signature requirement.

Q&A time

Following the presentation, Bryan and the team of panelists fielded viewer-submitted questions.

A north west Santa Rosa business owner asked if he hasn’t been impacted by a PSPS event so far, does that mean he won’t be affected this year?

Bryan said there is always the potential of being impacted by a PSPS.

Several other customers, including one in Oakmont, asked about creating defensible space, and the panelists recommended reaching out to your local fire department, many of which have defensible space programs.

Another viewer asked if a power shutoff would also include a gas shutoff and while gas was shutoff to many Sonoma County residents during the Kincade Fire for safety reasons, Bryan said typically gas should not be affected by a PSPS event.

“PSPS only relates to the electric service. The electricity through the lines, going through the community and to your house has no impact on the gas service to your house. It is worth mentioning that some equipment need electricity to operate even if it is gas. You may have a gas dryer for example, but it still needs electricity to turn on even though the heat comes from gas,” Pender said.

Perhaps the biggest question at hand was how PG&E will help keep power on at hospitals and other critical care facilities in the event of a PSPS during the pandemic.

“There are certain requirements and certain terms of backup generation for those critical facilities and we’ve also identified them in our tracking system so that we know which facilities are hospitals, fire stations, police stations etc,” Bryan said. “We’ve also identified any pandemic response locations. We recognize that some of the places that are responding to the pandemic are not typically hospitals, so we have also identified those and we are working with Cal OES and the state to understand any of the pandemic response locations and we are also working with them on what plans they have, or what backup generation might be required in order to make sure that those most critical sites maintain power when and where possible.”

There was also the question of how the operation of community resource centers, designated respite centers that offer heating and cooling, chargers, snacks and water during a PSPS, would be affected due to the virus.

During the Kincade Fire and the related electricity and gas shutoff, community resource centers located throughout the county, took center stage as people flocked to centers to warm up during the near freezing temperatures of that week.

In addition to resource centers, the Sonoma County Transit Agency had also set up a warming bus in front of Cloverdale City Hall for community members and evacuees.

Bryan said in the event of a PSPS they would update their centers to implement social distancing guidelines of six feet and would limit the number of individuals coming in and out. She added that those running the centers would also use personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves.

Community resource centers might also go on the road in the form of a sprinter van that visits neighborhoods and offers walk-up services.

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