Earlier this year, Pacific Gas & Electric warned that its new fire-prevention grid outage plan, meant to prevent a repeat of last year’s deadly Camp Fire that drove it into bankruptcy, could leave hundreds of thousands of its customers in the dark. 

High winds and dry conditions have forced PG&E to put this plan into action this week.

On Tuesday, PG&E announced plans to cut power to about 525,000 customer accounts across 34 counties over the next two days. It’s by far the biggest public safety power shutoff (PSPS) event in state history, dwarfing the 60,000 customers that PG&E blacked out in its first event last year.

At midnight Tuesday, PG&E cut power to about 185,000 customers in Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. These North Bay counties have been home to some of the state’s deadliest fires, including the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, which investigators concluded was sparked by a private electrical system, not by PG&E’s wires, on a similarly windy and dry day two years ago. 

PG&E’s plan also called for a de-energization of another 300,000 customers in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties on Wednesday. This includes parts of Oakland, San Jose and other San Francisco Bay Area cities, where school districts closed schools and emergency responders prepared to aid residents without power. 

While PG&E’s maps indicate areas likely to be affected, just which sections of the grid will be powered down, or for how long, will be up to the complex calculations of weather, wind, vegetation and grid network risks guiding the utility’s PSPS protocols. 

The same hot, dry and windy conditions are forcing California’s other two big investor-owned utilities to prepare for power shutoffs too. Southern California Edison said it may have to cut power to more than 170,000 customers across eight counties, while San Diego Gas & Electric warned that about 30,000 customers could face outages. 

PG&E in the hot seat

But it is PG&E’s de-energization efforts that are under particular scrutiny. The utility’s role in starting the Camp Fire and other fires in 2017 led directly to the tens of billions of dollars in liabilities that drove it to bankruptcy, where it remains. And the state’s new $21 billion wildfire fund, which protects SCE and SDG&E from insolvency, specifically exempts PG&E unless it emerges from bankruptcy by June 2020, leaving it open to massive new liabilities if its equipment sparks a fire this year. 

At the same time, PG&E is following the California Public Utilities Commission’s expanded scope for de-energization, both to cover a much larger part of the state, and to include high-voltage transmission lines (PDF) whose de-energization could force power outages in remote areas. 

That’s why this week’s power outages may affect customers in areas that aren’t experiencing any extreme winds or heat, Sumeet Singh, PG&E vice president of the Community Wildfire Safety Program, said during a Tuesday night press conference. 

PG&E also can’t precisely predict when power will be restored for every customer, since it must inspect and clear power lines before re-energizing them, he said. This work will also provide the data to determine just how many potential fires the power shutoff may have prevented. 

PG&E’s October 2018 de-energization left much of the town of Calistoga without power for two days. That drew complaints and damage claims from businesses, but it also likely prevented wildfires from starting, utility inspectors later said. The next month, PG&E considered but decided against de-energizing the grid that included the transmission line that started the Camp Fire.

Balanced against the public good of preventing fires is the need to prevent de-energizations from causing public harm. The CPUC requires utilities to provide public outreach and support during PSPS events, including setting up community centers where families can recharge phones or other electronics, stay cool and receive medical treatment and referrals if necessary. 

Utilities also must take steps to aid sick or elderly customers who need electricity to survive, and plan for contingencies to power state, county and city emergency responders and critical services.

PG&E’s preparations for this week’s event showed some flaws on this front. For example, Singh was unable to tell reporters at Tuesday’s press conference whether the Caldecott Tunnel, a major traffic route for East Bay commuters, would have the backup generation on hand necessary to keep it open if the grid serving it was forced to de-energize. 

As we’ve previously noted, PG&E’s sole proposal for a “resilience zone” microgrid project in the Sonoma County town of Angwin was postponed this summer due to design challenges — largely, the need to prevent the microgrid from causing its own fire risks by rerouting many of its overhead circuits underground. 

Solutions range from tree-trimming to solar-storage systems

PG&E has invested billions of dollars in power line inspections, vegetation clearing and other fire-prevention activities, although it is behind on its tree-trimming schedule. At the same time, the surest solutions for preventing power lines from sparking fires, such as undergrounding circuits, are expensive and time-consuming. 

California policymakers have also been looking to distributed energy resources as part of the solution to the state's wildfire-power grid challenge. Most of these are longer-term projects, such as expanding the still-challenging commercial opportunities for microgrid projects in the state. 

These opportunities extend to market-driven approaches. Last month, the CPUC approved changes to the state’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to direct $100 million of its budget toward disadvantaged or medically vulnerable residents of high-fire-risk areas, in the form of a highly generous $1-per-watt incentive for solar-battery systems. 

Most solar-battery systems aren’t set up to run during outages, but they can be. Tesla started sending Northern California customers alerts this week, warning them to keep their electric vehicle batteries fully charged. Owners of Tesla Powerwall battery systems also received “storm watch” alerts suggesting a full charge-up to prepare for outages, rather than allowing the battery to perform load-shifting or other economic tasks. 

Ravi Manghani, head of solar research for Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, noted that this week’s forecast for sunny skies could allow solar-storage systems to charge up enough during the day to “come to the rescue” for essential household needs. 

Manghani also noted that advocates such as Tesla and rival solar-storage installer Sunrun have been pushing for policies that promote distributed energy resources as one solution to the state’s PSPS situation.

Along with this week’s run on batteries, flashlights, bottled water and other emergency supplies, news reports have tracked a rise in diesel generator sales in California this year, driven by customers in more remote regions where the threat of multiday blackouts is most likely. 

Given the public attention to this week’s outages, “the market should see an uptick in battery storage sales, supported by recent carve-outs for vulnerable homes under the SGIP,” Manghani said. 

At the same time, “there are no carbon-free, distributed solutions that can provide reliable customer backup lasting for five days,” at least not at anything approaching a reasonable cost, he warned.