Contrasts of competence as California assesses power cuts and utility pole route management

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Pge outages 9oct2019

California’s privately-owned electric utilities and their regulators have a long and difficult job ahead as they try to figure out what was good and what was bad about last week’s massive wildfire prevention power cuts. Their eventual conclusions will have a significant impact on how utility pole routes are managed in California, including possible new, and more costly, design standards, and budgets for maintenance and wildfire prevention. Those costs will ultimately be shared with telecommunications companies that also use those poles.

The only major private electric utility that appears to be squarely in the good column is San Diego Gas and Electric. They shut off power to 395 customers, had them restored by Friday afternoon and did not start any fires. An excellent article in the Los Angeles Times by James Rainey and Joseph Serna details the operational, grid design and maintenance decisions SDG&E has made, and successfully implement, over the past decade.

The contrast with Pacific Gas and Electric is stark…

San Francisco-based PG&E is struggling to catch up with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., which has become California’s recognized leader in forecasting fire danger, tailoring narrow outages for the most endangered neighborhoods and communicating the emergencies with the public, a top state regulator said.

“Those have been three pillars of success for SDG&E, and they are currently sources of failure for PG&E,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director for safety policy at the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E took a much blunter approach, cutting power to 738,000 customers in 34 counties across northern and central California. A customer is reckoned as a home or business – at least two million people were affected. Two dozen or more transmission lines – major, high voltage lines that feed regional and local distribution grids – were shut down. Full service wasn’t restored until late Saturday.

Whether or not it was necessary to cut off so many customers is a question that will be debated for months, if not years. What’s not in doubt is that PG&E completely fumbled public communications and poisoned relationships with the public, as well as state regulators and elected officials. Both CPUC president Marybel Batjer and California governor Gavin Newsom excoriated PG&E’s management and performance, even while conceding the necessity of “public safety power shutoff events”. The PG&E website was largely useless, and in some cases completely unavailable, and much of the information that did get out was inaccurate.

On the other hand, PG&E has not been implicated in any of the (relatively) small wildfires that broke out during the days of high winds and low humidity. To that extent, PG&E’s wildfire prevention efforts were successful.

Southern California Edison might not be as lucky. Although SCE won qualified praise for planning and executing its wildfire prevention program last week, its equipment might have been the cause of a major fire that began on the northern edge of the City of Los Angeles, and had spread through nearly 8,000 acres as of last night. Eyewitnesses said the Saddleridge fire began at the base of an SCE transmission tower, on a line that was still electrified. The LA fire department is treating those reports as credible, but its arson investigators have not reached any conclusions about the cause.

SCE shut off power to 24,000 customers, and restored power to all but four last night.