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As fire season kicks in to high gear with heat waves slated for this weekend, PG&E is continuing its work across its service areas (PG&E provides electricity to most of the northern two-thirds of California, which represents 5.2 million households) to harden its system and implement measures to help reduce the risk of wildfire and to make public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) smaller in size and shorter in duration.

So far the company has added 400 new weather monitoring stations and installed 75 high-definition cameras across the state and has worked on 1,345 line-miles of vegetation management among other hardening projects.

PG&E public safety specialists and managers shared updates on the utility’s progress in a live webinar that was held on Aug. 12 to discuss PSPS events and wildfire prevention. 

PSPS events are issued to help reduce the risk of wildfire within high risk areas when dangerous weather conditions occur such as low humidity, strong wind gusts and hot temperatures. Based on historical data, the average amount of PSPS events for Sonoma County is one to three a year, however in 2019, the Sonoma County saw five shut off events.

Sectionalizing and micro-grids

The utility is working on installing new sectionalizing devices throughout the service area that separate the grid into smaller parts to reduce the number of customers affected during a public safety power shutoff.

With this device, if weather or debris threatens a section of the electrical system, a sectionalization device can turn off power to the impacted section, keeping electricity on for customers outside of the impacted area. 

The target for 2020 is to install 600 devices and 469 have been installed so far according to Stew Roth, a PG&E public safety specialist.

Additionally, the company is working to add remote or automated capabilities to these devices in order to further reduce the number of customers impacted. 

Sixty-one different sites are currently being considered in their coverage areas for microgrids and 45 sites are ready according to Roth.

It’s also installing microgrids that use generators to help keep lights on. At a fire safety webinar in early July, Fourth District Supervisor James Gore said Sonoma County would be the recipient of some of those generators, and that such generators would be in place in Bodega Bay, Cloverdale, Windsor and Healdsburg ahead of time and ready for use.

According to Gore, each generator is approximately the size of a shipping container and will produce 1.15 MHz of power. 

“It will make a short-term support network to keep the lights on when they shut down the grid,” he said. 

Advanced weather station network

“To further improve weather forecasting capabilities we continue to build our own network of weather stations to better predict and respond to severe weather threats. We’ve added over 400 new weather stations this year for a total of 1,000 and we’ll have another 1,300 new weather stations by 2021 with the goal of having one weather station approximately every 20 electric line miles in our high fire threat areas,” Roth said.

The company shares its weather stations with CalFire and others so that organizations can be part of the utility’s weather network for forecasting and predicting.

To bolster the weather station network, the organization aims to install over 200 high definition cameras in high fire threat areas this year. Approximately 75 have already been installed.

According to Roth, when they complete the project they will be able to see over 90% of the high fire threat areas within the territory they serve.

“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,” PG&E public safety specialist Jim Wickham said at a previous online webinar.

Customers can actually view real time footage from the cameras by visiting pge.com. The weather portion of the website also has a seven-day PSPS shutoff potential watch where folks can see whether a PSPS is expected, if there is an elevated change, if there is a PSPS watch, or a PSPS warning for their area.

Power line hardening 

This is one of the key things in terms of developing our resiliency. we are making a huge push to try and strengthen the electrical system and further reduce wildfire risk while at the same time better withstanding severe weather,” Roth said.

He said they’re hardening line infrastructure with stronger poles, covered power lines and undergrounding utilities where they can.

“This work is taking place across 7,100 miles of distribution lines in our high fire threat areas and our goal is to harden approximately 240 distribution circuit miles in 2020,” he said. To date they’ve accomplished 138 of those miles.

Vegetation management

In terms of vegetation management, the company has worked on 1,345 line-miles of vegetation management. The goal for the year is to complete 1,800 line-miles of vegetation work.

When crews reduce fire fuels the work is focused towards trimming overhanging tree branches and limbs so that there is a clearance of 12 feet in diameter. Crews will also trim any overhanging branches or foliage above them.

Website improvements

During the webinar, PG&E spokespersons also touched on improvements that are being made to the website. The website was a point of frustration for many during last year’s PSPS events as it repeatedly crashed due to a high volume of traffic during the de-energization periods, making it difficult to access information about where shut offs were taking place and when power would be restored.

To address these issues, the company is working on building a new, stand-alone, cloud-based website specifically for emergencies as well as an all-in-one map. The website will have simpler language and layouts with fully multilingual-translated content ADA accessibility.

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