PG&E starts massive power shutoff in face of wildfire threat

Pacific Gas & Electric early on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 9, started shutting off power in 22 California counties, with shutoffs in a dozen more counties set to start at noon in an effort to prevent wildfires caused by high winds taking down power lines.

The “public safety power shutoffs” (PSPS) are expected to affect about 800,000 customers in Northern and Central California and could last several days.

PG&E is considering a third phase of shutoffs affecting about 42,000 customers in the southern part of its service territory.

PG&E said the decision to turn off power was based on forecasts for dry, hot and windy weather including potential fire risk. The utility is providing details on the shutoffs here.

“Based on the latest weather forecasts and models, PG&E anticipates that this weather event will last through midday Thursday, with peak winds forecasted from Wednesday morning through Thursday morning and reaching 60 to 70 mph at higher elevations,” the San Francisco-based utility said.

PG&E has opened 28 community resource centers, which have restrooms, bottled water, electronic device charging stations and air-conditioned seating.

The utility is also sending out vans with bottled water, phone-charging and the latest information for customers.

PG&E's website went down on the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 8 “due to what the utility said was a ‘high volume of traffic’ from people looking up information related to a possible public safety power shutoff,” the SFGate website noted in an Oct. 8 story.

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are monitoring the weather and considering possible shutoffs. SCE is considering shutoffs for about 173,300 customers and SDG&E is preparing to shut off power to about 28,700 customers. The two utilities have set up webpages tied to possible shutoffs. SCE’s webpage is here; SDG&E’s webpage is here.

There is a Red Flag warning, the highest level fire alert from the National Weather Service, for most of California from early Wednesday through Friday because of gusty winds and low humidity, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, called Cal Fire.

There are six wildfires in the state, Cal Fire said.

The utilities shut off power as a last resort after reviewing various criteria, according to PG&E. The factors PG&E considers include: “extreme” fire danger threat level; Red Flag warnings; humidity levels generally below 20 percent; sustained winds above 25 mph and gusts over 45 mph; site-specific conditions; extremely dry vegetation and on-the ground, real-time observations.

After the extreme weather passes, PG&E aims to restore power within 24 hours.

The utility shutoff plans were approved in May by the California Public Utilities Commission. The plans include all voltage levels from distribution to 500-kilovolt.

The shutoff process is part of California’s efforts to deal with increasingly extreme wildfires.

About 25 million acres of in the state are classified as being under very high or extreme fire threat and roughly 11 million people, or a quarter of the state’s population, live in those high-risk areas, according to an April report prepared for California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

California wildfires killed 139 people and burned more than 2.8 million acres in the last two years.

PG&E and its parent, PGE Corp., filed for bankruptcy Jan. 29 in the face of about $30 billion in estimated wildfire-related liabilities. The utility’s bankruptcy is pending.

Public power utilities

Public power utilities updated customers on the PG&E PSPS situation.

Alameda Municipal Power said that it did not expect the public safety power shutoff, issued for Tuesday and Wednesday in Alameda County, to impact the city of Alameda.

“This specific power shutoff has been issued because of possible high winds in the East Bay hills that could trigger fires. PG&E has identified the specific substations that it will shut off in parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, if needed to prevent fires. There have been no warnings issued for the transmission lines that feed Alameda,” the public power utility said.

Alameda Municipal Power said it was continuing to monitor the situation closely but did not expect any impact to the city at this time.

The public power city of Biggs, Calif., said it did not expect impacts related to the PG&E implementation of their PSPS of certain PG&E distribution systems.

Glendale Water & Power noted that the National Weather Service issued a Fire Weather Watch over most of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. “We are expecting a very Dry Santa Ana Wind event producing moderate to strong winds starting Thursday, October 10 at 3:00 a.m. through Friday, October 11, 8:00 p.m.,” the public power utility said.

“Certain utilities such as Southern California Edison (SCE), have issued a region wide statement that if these high wind conditions exist and if there is a potential of an elevated wildfire danger, SCE will issue Public Safety Power Shut Offs (PSPS) and shut off power to their customers in high fire threat areas. Although we don’t anticipate shutting power off to any of our customers, if a PSPS does occur, then some of our critical transmission lines used to import power into Glendale and which are under the control of SCE and other utilities, could be affected which in turn could impact our customers. In the event that this does occur, we will notify any affected customers and keep them informed as the situation continues,” Glendale Water & Power said.

The utility noted that its electrical crews are also on standby should any power outages occur as result of strong winds.

“As you’ve likely heard, PG&E is shutting off power to parts of their service area during times of higher wildfire risk,” the public power city of Gridley, Calif. said on its website. “These shutoffs will most likely not impact the Gridley Electric Utility and our customers.  We are connected to a different power grid and receive our power from Gridley’s sources other than PG&E.”

The public power city of Lodi, Calif., which set up a PSPS website, said that the PG&E facilities that provide transmission of power to Lodi are not located within high fire threat areas. “However, to the extent that actions taken by PG&E to reduce the risk of wildfire have broader implications on the power grid, the City of Lodi may experience power outages.”

Lodi said that because of the integrated nature of the power grid, “PG&E’s decision to use power outages as a wildfire mitigation measure is beyond Lodi Electric’s control; however, every step will be taken to restore power as soon as possible in the event of an outage.”

PG&E has met with Lodi Electric staff to discuss communication plans in the event of a Public Safety Power Shutoff and will continue to discuss the specific impacts to Lodi.

City staff were working to identify emergency/cooling centers in the event of a citywide power outage.

Modesto Irrigation District tweeted that its electric system operates separately from PG&E, so MID customers won't be affected by PG&E's PSPS.

The public power city of Pittsburg, Calif., said that the power shutoff “is still a fluid event, and the potential for turning off the electricity to members of the Pittsburg Community could change by the hour.” The city set up a webpage on the PSPS and resources for customers.

The city of Roseville, Calif., said that the PG&E shutoff will not impact Roseville Electric Utility and its customers. “We are connected to a different section of the power grid and receive our power from Roseville’s own generation resources and sources other than PG&E.”

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District said that it “doesn’t have any public safety power shut offs planned at this time. Wildfire risk in our service territory is low, but we’re prepared in the event of an emergency.”

SMUD included links on its webpage that provide additional details about its plans and how customers can prepare for an emergency.

“At this time, there are no immediate public safety power shutoff threats affecting Silicon Valley Power customers,” the City of Santa Clara noted on its webpage. “We will notify our customers of any potential power outages as soon as we are alerted.” 

While the risk of wildfires is very low in the city of Santa Clara, “all customers should be prepared for a possible public safety power shutoff. Be sure to prepare an emergency plan in advance in case your family is affected by a power shutoff – or any other emergency.”

Truckee Donner Public Utility District said it does not get power from PG&E and that its customers will not be impacted. The PUD noted that NV Energy does supply power to it and that NV Energy has a program to de-energize transmission to the greater Truckee area in extreme fire danger -- Public Safety Outage management (PSOM). But NV Energy has not announced any plans for PSOM at this time. 

Turlock Irrigation District tweeted that its customers are not subject to the Public Safety Power Shut-offs from PG&E. “At this time, we do not anticipate turning off power due to the forecasted winds.”

In a Facebook post made early on the morning of October 9, the city of Ukiah said that customers within the Ukiah city limits have power and all other utility services. “The City of Ukiah has been monitoring the PSPS event throughout the night. Outages are widespread throughout central and northern California. However, the City of Ukiah’s electric system has not been impacted.”

California CCAs

Meanwhile, several community choice aggregators in the state provided updates on the shutoff situation.

East Bay Community Energy, the local electricity supplier in Alameda County, provided links on its website for more information on how to be prepared for a Public Safety Power Shut-off (PSPS) event.

Another CCA, Marin Clean Energy, noted on its website that PG&E will turn off power for some MCE customers in portions of Contra Costa County, Marin County, Napa County, and Solano County on October 9.

Monterey Bay Community Power provided a link to PSPS alerts from PG&E.

Peninsula Clean Energy tweeted that due to extreme weather conditions, PG&E had made a determination to shut off power to certain areas within Peninsula Clean Energy’s service territory as a part of the PSPS. The tweet included a link to find out if a customer’s service may be impacted.

On its Facebook page, Redwood Coast Energy Authority noted that it had been informed by PG&E that its customers may be affected by the PSPS.

“Please visit PG&E’s website for more information, but if you are having a hard time reaching PG&E, we will be updating our website and Facebook with the most up to date information we receive,” RCEA said. It provided a link to the PG&E PSPS webpage.

San Jose Clean Energy noted on its website that PG&E had alerted county and city officials about the potential for a PG&E PSPS event impacting 29 counties in Northern California, including approximately 38,000 customer accounts in Santa Clara County. “PG&E projects east San Jose along the foothills and south San Jose in Almaden Valley are confirmed to be affected,” the CCA said.

Because All San Jose Clean Energy customers are PG&E customers for electric delivery, all residents in the affected areas may be impacted, the CCA noted.