Expect more blackouts in California, PG&E says. But utility predicts smaller, shorter shutoffs

By Dale Kasler

The Sacramento Bee

Make no mistake: PG&E Corp. will plunge Californians into darkness again this year if it thinks that will prevent another major wildfire.

But the utility said Friday it’s investing millions in personnel and technology to lessen the impact of its “public safety power shutoffs” and believes the 2020 blackouts won’t darken nearly as many homes as last year.

PG&E, which has 16 million customers around the state, filed an updated wildfire safety blueprint with the Public Utilities Commission, outlining plans for “hardening” its electric grid, improving its weather forecasting and trimming back more tree limbs that could spark fires.

Above all, PG&E expects it can make its deliberate blackouts — engineered when windstorms kick up and wildfire risk is high — less burdensome than last October, when outages affected millions of Northern Californians, infuriated Gov. Gavin Newsom, and still failed to prevent a major wildfire in Sonoma County.

This year’s blackouts should be “smarter, smaller and shorter,” said Mike Pender, a director of the utility’s wildfire safety program. “There’s been a lot of learning at PG&E from the last wildfire season.”

Pender said the footprint of this year’s blackouts should be about one-third smaller than last year’s for a windstorm of similar size, thanks to “sectionalizing” switches that will allow PG&E “to cut up the grid.” PG&E will double the number of switches it had last year.

PG&E released its new safety plan at a crucial moment in the company’s history. Newsom, still seething over PG&E’s troubled safety history and last fall’s blackout drama, so far has refused to give his blessing to PG&E’s bankruptcy reorganization plan.

The utility filed a new bankruptcy plan a week ago, promising a leadership shakeup and greater emphasis on safety, in an effort to win over the governor. PG&E must exit bankruptcy by June 30 in order to qualify for a $21 billion insurance fund designed to cushion utilities against liabilities from future wildfires.

Power shutoffs remain a delicate balancing act for all California utilities, but none more than PG&E, which was driven into bankruptcy by the 2017 wine country fires and 2018’s Camp Fire.

In post-mortem reports filed with the state, PG&E said its crews found hundreds of examples of trees that had crashed into power lines during last year’s blackouts. At the same time, the blackouts last fall created little sympathy for the company and sparked complaints that PG&E was endangering public safety by cutting power to elderly people dependent on respirators and other electric devices.

“Our goal is to achieve the correct target of ensuring safety without creating risks in either direction,” Pender said.

Pender said PG&E plans to spend $2 billion this year on wildfire safety, although it will be up to the California PUC to decide how much gets billed to ratepayers.

Among other things, PG&E will double the size of its helicopter fleet — to 65 — so it can inspect the grid for wind damage and get the power turned back on power quickly after a windstorm ends. It also will deploy two airplanes with infrared technology to do nighttime inspections. Pender said PG&E expects to restore power within 12 daylight hours, or half as much time as last year.

The release of the 2020 wildfire plan came hours after PG&E named a “chief safety officer,” fulfilling one of the promises it made as it tries to convince state officials of its commitment to preventing wildfires. The officer, Francisco Benavides, had been in charge of safety at aluminum maker Alcoa Corp.

Wind, wildfire and blackouts

PG&E imposed four separate power outages during major windstorms last October.

The three-day blackout that began Oct. 9 was completely mishandled, by PG&E’s admission. Its website crashed and its call center was overwhelmed with customer inquiries. The company apologized for the snafus and eventually agreed, under pressure from Newsom, to grant $90 million in one-time bill credits to the hundreds of thousands of customers who’d been blacked out. The credits amounted to $122 per household.

A pair of back-to-back power outages in late October created an even bigger nightmare for the utility. Despite blacking out much of the wine country, the utility decided not to shut off a high-voltage transmission line running through Sonoma County.

A transmission tower near Geyserville malfunctioned and apparently ignited the Kincade Fire. The fire destroyed or damaged 434 homes and other buildings, chewed through 77,000 acres and prompted the evacuation of more than 190,000 people. Cal Fire continues to investigate the cause.

PG&E has been reluctant to shut down its transmission lines, which carry power in bulk to broad territories, in part because the lines are higher off the ground and considered less likely to start fires than the localized distribution wires.

After the Kincade Fire, the company said it would reevaluate that approach, and Pender said PG&E will make the call on transmission lines on a case-by-case basis. “There’s no blanket policy,” he said.

Last fall’s blackouts, coupled with the Kincade Fire, intensified the friction between PG&E and state officials. PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson, citing the growing wildfire risk from climate change, said it might take a decade to harden the electric grid to the point that blackouts aren’t needed.

Newsom raged at the utility in response and began raising the possibility of a government takeover. He continues to complicate PG&E’s effort to pull out of bankruptcy: The company has cut deals to pay $25 billion in damages from the 2017-18 wildfires but still hasn’t secured the state’s approval for its reorganization plan. Newsom has been demanding significant changes in the utility’s leadership and finances.

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