The line for gas at Costco in Eureka stretched out of the parking lot and around the block during last year's power shutoff.
PG&E is rolling out a multi-tiered plan the company says will translate into shorter, more localized Public Safety Power Shutoffs and better communication with the public before, during and after an event.
Prompted by dangerous wildfire conditions, including high winds and low humidity, last year’s massive shutoffs left millions without power for days, putting the medically fragile at risk and wreaking economic havoc across wide swaths of California.
In episodes marked by confusion
amid inaccurate information from PG&E, including the possibility of a third shutoff
in the region, Humboldt County was plunged into darkness twice in October of 2019 — the first time with just a few hours’ notice.
In reports to the California Public Utilities Commission following the outages, the company acknowledged “falling short in several areas of execution” and stated “communication remains a key area that PG&E is focused on improving.”
“PG&E understands that customers, external partners and communities need consistent, timely and accurate information relating to potential PSPS events,” a report about the late October shutoff states. “PG&E is working to ensure that critical information is available to customers and agencies when they need it and will continue to focus on reducing the cycle time in providing updates to customers, the state and impacted communities, counties and tribes.”
To that end, company representatives outlined a series of efforts
aimed at better predicting and mitigating future PSPS incidents during a webinar earlier this month for residents in Humboldt, Siskiyou and Trinity counties.
For the North Coast, a major component is the new ability to separate the Humboldt Bay Power Plant (known as “islanding”) from the main grid, which affords PG&E the option to shield 20 cities and towns in the region from an outage, including Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Fortuna, as well as some tribal communities, areas of northern Mendocino County and parts of Trinity County — depending on weather conditions.
“We have maximized the size of the island that we can safely energize and, although none of the areas within the island were in scope for PSPS events in 2019, we may need to turn power off to some of the areas … if high fire-threat conditions exist locally during future events,” said Carl Schoenhofer, senior manager of PG&E’s Humboldt division.
Weather risks in the counties of Shasta and Mendocino prompted PG&E to shut down the grid that feeds Humboldt last year, which caused the whole county to go dark despite the lack of a localized wildfire threat.
Transmission lines like these carry power into Humboldt County along state routes 36 and 299.
To further reduce the footprint of any future PSPS events, PG&E has also installed 19 “sectionalizing devices” in Humboldt County — which split up the grid into smaller parts and create more flexibility to redirect power. And, the company is looking to install two temporary microgrids — one in the Hoopa area and another in Willow Creek — to power local substations.
All of those efforts will “help keep the lights on for customers in a PSPS event,” PG&E public safety specialist Mike Weaver said. Another part of the program is the installation of advanced meteorological stations to collect weather data on the “granular” level and a new customer communication system.
The upgraded reporting system aims to send out PSPS notifications two days out, one day out and just before a shutoff “when and where possible,” as well as provide updates during the outage and when power is restored. In many ways, it’s slated to operate like alerts for tsunamis or tornados, with customers receiving “watch” notifications if the weather forecast indicates a power shutoff may be necessary.
That would be followed by an upgrade to a “warning” when one appears imminent, including a time window for the shutoff’s initiation and an estimation of how long it will last. “Customers can expect daily updates until the power is restored,” Weaver said, noting the amount of advance notice will depend on weather conditions.
Once conditions lift, an expanded aerial inspection fleet and the addition of infrared equipment to inspect transmission lines and other equipment at night is expected to have power back up in half the time, according to the PG&E presentation.
A ZIP code alert signup is now available for those who are not PG&E account holders and a new website has been launched with information on the company’s plan, available resources and any current or predicted PSPS events, as well as daily weather updates and seven-day forecasts of potential conditions that could trigger an outage.
Schoenhofer said PG&E is giving funds to the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers “to provide resources to our most vulnerable customers that have access or functional needs through local independent living centers when the power goes out.”
Plans for how those resources will be coordinated in Humboldt County are still being finalized.
Last year, the county Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies who care for the region’s most vulnerable were left scrambling to come up with contingency plans to provide care and medical supplies.
DHHS, for instance, worked with the Blue Lake Rancheria to house medically-vulnerable residents at the Blue Lake Casino and Hotel, which had power thanks to the Tribe’s investment in a microgrid, a partnership that likely saved lives.
According to Schoenhofer, a pilot program for “qualifying customers” will offer portable batteries as a backup, as well as “transportation resources, hotel and food vouchers, communication equipment and emergency planning assistance.”
He said individuals who would need this assistance should visit www.CFILC.org
for more information.
Meanwhile, new plans are also being laid for Community Resource Centers, where residents can charge phones or medical devices and accesses other services. The locations and timing of such centers were yet another ruffle in PG&E’s local operations last year, when only one — not the two local officials had expected — opened in Eureka after electricity had been restored there during the first shutoff but outlying areas were still without power.
Since last year, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated matters.
Schoenhofer said contingency plans are being made because gathering groups of people from different households together is currently prohibited, including mobile vans or pop-up tents rather than or in addition to brick-and-mortar locations.
If a shutoff occurs, information on the centers will be available on PG&E’s website and shared with local media.
“We understand the importance of keeping the lights on, especially given the current stay-at-home orders,” said Vanessa Bryan, a local customer experience manager who led the webinar with Weaver and Schoenhofer. “We are determined to do everything possible to address both the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic and the threat of catastrophic wildfires. Our overriding goal is to ensure public safety, and Public Safety Power Shutoff is an important tool for doing so.”
Editor's note: Due to incorrect information from PG&E, this story has been updated to clarify that plans for how California Foundation for Independent Living Centers resources will be coordinated in Humboldt County are still being finalized.