Was PG&E right to leave thousands in the dark to prevent wildfires? The jury is still out

Pacific Gas & Electric crews repair power lines after the Ranch fire burned through the area near Clearlake on  Aug. 8.
Pacific Gas & Electric crews repair power lines after the Ranch fire burned through the area near Clearlake on Aug. 8. The New York Times

A year after the most destructive wildfire in California history blackened wine country, PG&E completed the first big test of its new better-safe-than-sorry strategy.

As a last resort during extreme fire conditions, the utility is temporarily cutting off power to customers prevent its lines from sparking fires that turn into deadly infernos. While the recent power outages went mostly as planned and no major blazes broke out, there’s clearly room for improvement, as well as some big questions.

One is: Did PG&E jump the gun? Perhaps.

Cal Fire made clear it wasn’t involved in the shutoff and would only ask the utility to make such a decision to protect firefighters during an active fire. Customers have complained about spoiled food, lost business, closed schools and other interruptions to daily life. Some consumer groups are urging the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate.

Also high on the list of questions: Is there a way to improve communication?

PG&E said it started notifying customers late Saturday before cutting the power Sunday to about 59,000 households in six counties in the Sierra foothills and North Bay: El Dorado, Calaveras, Amador, Napa and Lake, Sonoma. Power was restored to the final 1,600 customers by 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Under its Public Safety Power Shutoff policy enacted in September, PG&E notified emergency response agencies, first responders and local governments first. The utility also gave customers advance notice by phone, text and email, as well as alerts via social media and the news media.

Notification, we’ve learned, is even more important when a lack of power could be a matter of life or death. PG&E’s policy is to make direct outreach to hospitals, fire stations, water agencies, telecommunications companies and others that provide “critical” services.

The utility’s plan also calls for contacting residential customers enrolled in its medical financial assistance program, including 109,000 statewide who depend on life-support equipment, to urge them to check their backup generators or consider staying with friends or relatives. And, in this power shutoff, the utility says it sent employees to knock on doors if it wasn’t able to contact these customers through phone calls, texts or emails.

But in Calistoga, officials still had to transport at least one resident to the hospital because a home oxygen machine was put out of commission, Fire Chief Steve Campbell told The Bee. That’s a problem.

PG&E says while it will try to turn the power back on within 24 hours after the danger has passed, the outages can — and did — last two to five days. Much of the delay is to inspect power lines that are de-energized — in this case more than 78 miles of transmission lines and 2,150 miles of distribution lines. PG&E says some of its lines were damaged by high winds.

Expect more of this. PG&E plans to do a “full assessment” of this shutoff, but anticipates at least one or two a year going forward, most likely in highest fire-risk areas. According to a map adopted this year by the CPUC, these areas include swaths of the Sierra and foothills, the North Bay and Southern California.

The new power shutoff policy is only one part of a broader Community Wildfire Safety Program put together by PG&E after the devastation and near financial ruin from the October 2017 fires in wine country and the Sacramento Valley that killed 44 people. Officials have blamed PG&E for 16 of those fires so far, plus the June fires north of the Bay and the Cascade Fire in Yuba County in October that killed four.

PG&E, which has 5.3 million customers in its 70,000-square-mile service area, has opened a new 24-hour wildfire safety operations center, which uses real-time information from field teams, an expanded network of weather stations, live video streams and reports from national, state and local agencies.

In the short term, it is focusing on meeting new state safety standards, including creating more space between trees and about 7,100 miles of overhead power lines in communities with the most extreme fire threat.

Longer-term, it plans to “harden” its electrical network by replacing wood power poles with non-wood ones and installing stronger, coated power lines. The details and costs are still being worked out; some specifics will be in its 2020 general rate case, to be filed with the CPUC by the end of this year.

These measures will improve safety, but also will lower PG&E’s liability.

After an intense lobbying campaign, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators agreed to an 11th hour deal to change the state law that makes utilities responsible for paying damages if their equipment starts a fire, even if they are not negligent. Going forward, PG&E and other utilities will pay for damages based on their level of negligence, as determined by the CPUC.

The deal also allows PG&E to charge its customers to finance long-term bonds to help cover the estimated $15 billion in damages from the wine country fires. The utility estimates that, for every $1 billion in bonds issued, its average residential customer will pay $5 a year more.

That raises another question about these planned outages: Will customers will get a rebate for the inconvenience of losing power or be reimbursed for any losses? The answer is no, although customers won’t be billed for service during the outage, itself, since no electricity was used.

PG&E’s safety power shutoffs can be a step forward, if they’re done right. Yet even in the “new normal” on wildfires, corporations can’t escape responsibility to taxpayers and their customers.

Are you ready for wildfires?

PG&E customers can:

Check whether you live in a high fire threat area by going to pge.com/wildfiresafety and typing in your address.

Sign up for power shutoff alerts by updating contact information at pge.com/mywildfirealerts or at 866-743-6589.

Get a safety plan checklist and tips at pge.com/wildfiresafety.