The era of available electricity whenever and wherever needed is officially over in wildfire-plagued California.
Pacific Gas & Electric served stark notice of that “new normal” this past weekend when it preemptively shut power to tens of thousands of customers in five Northern California counties. The utility warned that it could happen again, perhaps repeatedly, this summer and fall as it seeks to avoid triggering disastrous wildfires.
The dramatic act has prompted questions and concerns: What criteria did PG&E use? Did the shutdowns prevent any fires? And what can residents do to prepare for what could be days without electricity?
The managed outages were broad, affecting 22,000 customers in Napa, Yolo, Solano, Butte and Yuba counties across two days. That included Paradise and Magalia, two towns that were devastated seven months ago during the Camp Fire, a massive blaze triggered by high winds hitting PG&E transmission lines.
PG&E inspection crews on Sunday found what was believed to be wind-caused damage to some equipment, utility officials said, necessitating repairs. In one instance, a branch came into contact with a de-energized power line somewhere in the foothills. PG&E declined Monday to disclose the location.
Utility officials also declined to say whether they believe their weekend action prevented a fire.
PG&E is required, however, to send a report to the state Public Utilities Commission within 10 days explaining its decision-making process. That report could have information about whether the utility believes the shutdown prevented a fire.
PG&E considered preemptive shutoffs in three other counties, Nevada, El Dorado and Placer, but decided they weren’t needed.
“We ask that all our customers use this event as a reminder to revisit their emergency plans and build or restock their emergency kits to prepare for potential power outages during wildfire season,” said PG&E official Michael Lewis.
What is the program?
It’s called the Public Safety Power Shutoff program, developed in cooperation with state utility regulators at the Public Utilities Commission. The utility shuts electricity on transmission and distribution lines in fire-prone areas during high fire-risk moments. The program isn’t new. But the practice is about to become more common.
Why do it?
The wildfire risks have grown in California, prompted in part by higher temperatures. Some of the worst fires have been caused by utility company equipment failures during high winds.
San Diego Gas & Electric led the way with preventive shutdowns a few years ago. PG&E had been reluctant to take such dramatic steps, given the hardships it causes customers, particularly physically frail, elderly and medically compromised customers who rely on electricity for air conditioning and to keep medical equipment running.
Faced with financial liability from power-line-caused fires, though, the utility company intends to be more assertive this year in shutting off power when wildfire risk is high.
What criteria does PG&E use?
In essence, it’s a judgment call by the utility’s wildfire safety group. It starts with a “red flag warning” issued by the National Weather Service when forecast heat, winds and humidity are about to create significant fire danger.
PG&E officials say they will consider a blackout if humidity is 20 percent or below, with average wind speed forecast at 20 mph or higher and with expected gusts of 40-plus mph. PG&E officials say they also will take into account field observations of how much dry fuel and live vegetation is in a given area.
This year, PG&E plans to have 600 weather stations and 100 cameras installed in high fire-threat areas to help it make the decision.
How often will these blackouts happen?
It was a wet winter, which means a lot of fire fuel. The National Weather Service says this summer is projected to be warmer than average. The foothills are still green, but vegetation will dry out fast.
“It is up to the utilities to determine when to call a PSPS, but it should be as a last resort,” California PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said in an email to The Sacramento Bee on Monday.
“We know how much our customers rely on electric service and the impacts these events can have on them, their families and communities – including refrigeration and medical equipment,” PG&E spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said in an email to The Bee. “We only consider temporarily turning off power in the interest of safety during extreme weather conditions to reduce the risk of wildfire.”
Will outages affect urban residents?
It’s less likely to affect urban areas than rural areas. But PG&E officials this weekend warned they could shut power for urban areas as well, given that major transmission lines that provide urban power travel through fire-prone rural areas.
What about Sacramento, which is served by SMUD?
SMUD’s service territory in Sacramento County does not face a high fire risk. SMUD has not preemptively shut service because of wildfire threat yet, and doesn’t expect to this summer, a spokesman said.
But some SMUD transmission lines run through rural fire areas. “In a pinch, if we had a situation where it is the safest thing to do, we would de-energize those transmission lines,” SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said. “We don’t see it as a big problem, but safety comes first.”
How much warning will you get?
PG&E began warning customers on Friday of the potential for a Saturday shutdown. PG&E’s warning method includes automated phone calls, texts and emails. Crews also will knock on doors of some people in its Medical Baseline program who use electricity related to medical conditions.
SMUD officials say they also will get the word out via robocalls, which can go out to tens of thousands of customers in a matter of seconds.
The utility companies will also publish press releases and put info up on websites and social media.
What preparations can people take?
For people who live in fire-risk areas, a first step is to sign up for PG&E power outage alerts at www.pge.com/wildfiresafety. PG&E says it will send emails, texts and at times make phone calls “when possible” before a pre-emptive outage.
PG&E has an outage map on that page that includes information on the reason for each outage and an estimated time power is expected to be restored. The utility has preparation information on its website at pge.com/wildfiresafety
People in high-risk areas should have an emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first aid supplies and cash, PG&E says. Do not use candles; they increase the risk of fire.
Residents should also have some form of backup charging methods for phones and should keep hard copies of emergency numbers. The utility company advises making sure smoke alarms and fire extinguishers are ready, and that emergency food and water are on hand.
Officials suggest people unplug or turn off electric appliances “to avoid overloading circuits and to prevent fire hazards when power is restored.”
Consumers can also give information about themselves to PG&E at pge.com/mywildfirealerts or by calling 1-866-743-6589 during business hours.
Some also could consider buying a power generator to keep essential appliances going.
SMUD officials say people should make sure they have a manual way to open their garage door. They also should alert other family members that their area may be hit with a power shutdown.