Repeat outages rock PG&E’s wildfire safety shift from tree trimming to circuit breakers

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.

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