Laurel Adams Ferns awoke Monday to no electricity at her Walnut Creek home, forcing a trip to a nearby cafe for an internet connection to get through her fourth outage in a little over a month, each stretching more than 10 hours.
Pacific Gas & Electric Co., blamed for devastating wildfires sparked by power lines in recent years and under pressure to improve safety, has embarked on a new strategy this year that shifts focus from stepped-up tree trimming near its equipment to advanced circuit-breaker technology. The utility insists the change reduced fire risk with little additional impact on most customers. But customers complain the rollout has been bedeviled by repeated outages — and one of PG&E’s own reports to California regulators shows a spike in customer outages last year as it initiated the program.
“For those of us who work remotely,” said Ferns, a lawyer, “this is hell, let alone factoring how many times since this new ‘strategy’ went into place that I have had to throw out everything from my refrigerator.”
PG&E acknowledged that the change has increased “the number of customers impacted” under its new approach and that it’s working to fine tune it to improve reliability.
“PG&E is making the electric system safer and stronger for our communities,” the utility said in a statement. “We know how difficult it was for the customers who did experience outages, which is why we are continuing to find ways to lessen the impact of power outages on our customers.”
At issue is what PG&E calls Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings, or EPSS, in which circuit breakers automatically cut power to a block of customers within a tenth of a second when there’s a fault such as from a branch falling on a power line. PG&E introduced it in 2021 and completed the rollout last year in and around high fire-risk areas, including much of the East Bay, North Bay, Peninsula, South Bay foothills and Santa Cruz Mountains.
The utility told state regulators last month the EPSS program in 2022 cut the number of fire ignitions over previous year averages by 68% compared to 7% under its vegetation management program.
But a rash of power outages this summer has led some residents to start online petitions — and caught the attention of some local officials. The city of Lafayette reached out to the utility after outages Monday and asked that company representatives attend a City Council meeting later this month to provide updates on the situation. PG&E is planning community events to answer questions there and in Los Gatos.
The complaints have not gone unnoticed by agencies that oversee PG&E. The troubled utility that powers more than 5 million households in most of Northern California is facing questions from state authorities as it seeks approval of its updated wildfire safety plan.
The California Public Utilities Commission in 2020 imposed a record $1.97 billion penalty against the utility over a series of deadly Northern California wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018. Most recently, PG&E settled with Shasta County authorities for $50 million over the deadly 2020 Zogg Fire sparked by a tree striking power lines.
In a mandated response this week to the state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, which asked PG&E to revise its most recent wildfire plan, the utility said data show the EPSS technology didn’t unduly affect outages for most customers. The agency is reviewing the response.
PG&E’s response said that of 1.8 million customers on EPSS-protected circuits in 2022, 58% experienced no outages from the technology, and 26% had no more than two last year, with the average outage shrinking to under three hours. The utility said most customers “experienced service reliability consistent with systemwide performance.”
However, PG&E’s 2022 annual electric reliability report to the CPUC July 15 said its “reliability metrics were negatively affected as PG&E implemented Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings” and that “these wildfire mitigation efforts have resulted in customers experiencing more and longer sustained outages.” PG&E added that its “electric system also experienced new and different stresses due to load shifts as many Californians continued to work remotely in 2022,” a lingering effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Systemwide, the reliability report showed that annual customer outage frequency was up 44%, outage duration up 19% ,and annual minutes out increased 71% in 2022 over the average of the previous five years, with EPSS often cited as a factor.
It was worse in several greater Bay Area regions, including Contra Costa County and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
And that was just last year. This year, residents complain that outages have been frequent, rain or shine. Moraga saw outages July 13, 14 and 20 and August 3, 5 and 7. In Los Gatos, power was out July 17, July 20 and Aug. 7.
PG&E said it has been working on sensitivity settings and other system tweaks to reduce unnecessary outages, and so far this year, outages are down more than 20% over the same period a year ago.
Kathryn Hayes, of Boulder Creek, said she and her husband have suffered five outages from June 1 through Aug. 1.
“We are sold this program in the name of safety. All I know is that as a customer, it is extremely inconvenient and upsetting,” Hayes said. “You never know when it is going to happen next. During the winter we have frequent and prolonged power outages. Now we have frequent and sometimes long power outages in the summer, too.”
She and her neighbors believe PG&E set the circuit breakers too sensitive. She and her husband bought a power generator a few weeks ago, but with so many blackouts they wonder how long they can stay in their Santa Cruz Mountains home.
“There has to be a better solution,” Hayes said. “They applaud themselves for making us ‘safer,’ but all they’re really doing is making us suffer.”
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