PG&E details plan to reduce reach of California blackouts by a third

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Friday that it plans to invest in new power grid technology, weather-forecasting tools and other equipment that will help reduce the number of homes and businesses to which the utility turns off power because of fire risk this year.

As part of its latest state-mandated, fire-prevention plan, PG&E told regulators that it wants to install 592 automated devices this year that allow the company to better constrain the sections of its electrical system that are turned off because of dangerously dry and windy weather.

Additionally, PG&E said it will add 23 switches to high-voltage power lines that can redirect the flow of electricity to prevent some parts of the system from losing power. The company further plans to use a more advanced system this year to improve its weather forecasts in specific locations.

And PG&E said it wants to nearly double the number of helicopters that can patrol power lines from the sky, a move that would help speed up the time it takes the company to restore electricity after a fire-prevention blackout. PG&E will deploy two fixed-wing aircraft with infrared cameras that can patrol power lines at night.

Experts welcomed the changes but said PG&E would have to deploy them strategically to meet its goal of curbing the reach and impact of fire-prevention blackouts.

The utility will need to install the new equipment in the areas with high wildfire risks, based on data from its network of weather stations, said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.

“As important as the number is going to be how smart PG&E is in where they put those switches in their system,” he said. PG&E currently has around 600 weather stations and is proposing to deploy 400 more this year, aiming for 1,300 by 2021. “Probably some will be put in the right place and some won’t be,” Wara said.

The plan filed with the California Public Utilities Commission provides PG&E’s most specific description yet of how it will try to improve upon last year’s controversial prolonged blackouts — which it calls public safety power shut-offs — that affected millions of people. Though the company has warned it will likely need to continue turning off power to avoid more fires for years to come, PG&E has also said it will try to increasingly limit the blackouts.

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Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network consumer group, said his organization questions whether using more manned aircraft is the most cost-effective way of patrolling power lines after an extreme weather event.

“It seems like an awful expensive way to do inspection,” he said. He would like to see costs compared with using drones.

PG&E’s goal this year is to have each fire-prevention blackout affect one-third fewer homes and businesses than it would have last year, said Matt Pender, director of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program.

“We are really focused in this plan on making those (blackout) events smarter, smaller and shorter in 2020 and beyond,” Pender said.

The company also plans to restore power more quickly after it is cut off. The plan calls for PG&E to restore power in 50% less time than what was planned for last year, aiming to restore power for “98% of affected customers within 12 daylight hours” when company meteorologists declare an “all clear” from the weather conditions that prompted a shut-off.

It’s all part of a broader fire-prevention plan projected to cost about $2.6 billion annually, though the company cautioned that it is not yet seeking any rate increases to fund the work. Separate regulatory proceedings will determine how much money PG&E raises from customer bills to fund its wildfire programs.

Other aspects of the plan include trimming or cutting down more than 1 million trees near power lines, and placing nearly 200 more high-definition cameras to monitor for new fires this year. The company will also install stronger poles and covered wires and bury some wires underground along 240 miles of power lines in high fire-threat areas.

Wara said progress can’t be measured solely by how many trees are trimmed or miles of lines are buried.

Toney, of the utility reform group, agreed.

People “expect to see this investment in trimming trees and fixing lines … result in less and less shut-offs,” he said. “We have to support effective spending to actually increase safety,” not just spend money “with no measurable results,” he added.

PG&E will test even more advanced fire-protection capabilities, according to Pender, including new technology that can “in the right circumstances” turn off a broken power line before it hits the ground. PG&E will try out the technology at one substation this year, he said.

The five utilities commissioners must still vote to approve the plan, an action not expected until June, and they may make adjustments. Also, PG&E’s goal of limiting blackouts relies in part on deploying new sources of power generation at certain substations — a proposal that community energy groups have already objected to, fearing it may rely too much on fossil fuels.

The new fire plan comes at an important juncture for PG&E.

The utility and its parent company PG&E Corp. are still in bankruptcy protection because their power lines sparked a series of catastrophic fires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. A new law requires PG&E to resolve its bankruptcy by June 30 in order to access funding to pay for future costs.

At the same time, PG&E faces continued scrutiny of its fire-prevention blackout program from regulators at the utilities commission. Last year, PG&E took the unprecedented step of cutting power for millions of Californians, many for days on end, to prevent power lines from starting more deadly fires during windstorms.

The massive shut-offs — and PG&E’s botched efforts to implement them in early October — provoked widespread backlash. Commission President Marybel Batjer ordered PG&E to show why it should not be sanctioned for its missteps, including a faulty website that crashed and prevented customers from accessing crucial information. The commission also launched a more wide-ranging investigation into power shut-offs across the state last year.

Last week, Batjer said she had found “serious deficiencies” with how PG&E reported its efforts to improve the blackout program, and she ordered fixes. An administrative law judge for the utilities commission has separately proposed new power shut-off guidelines that would require electric companies to restore power within 24 hours of dangerous weather concluding, among other changes.