SACRAMENTO, Calif. — PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff Program has community leaders scrambling to prepare their cities for days-long power outages. At a hearing on Wednesday, state lawmakers didn’t mince words as they brought their concerns and frustrations to the utility giant.
Cities started getting word back in May that PG&E planned on expanding its power shutoff program to avoid sparking wildfires during fire-favorable weather conditions. Last year’s program involved de-energizing only the smaller distribution lines, whereas this year’s expanded plan involves possibly cutting power to the big transmission lines – the so-called backbone of the power grid.
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This means that even communities far from high-fire-risk areas could find themselves in the dark for days on end if an area served by the same transmission line experiences extremely hot, dry and windy conditions.
"Local communities are very concerned about these power shutoffs,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told ABC10 News Wednesday morning. “You can imagine the impacts when those who rely on respirators or other kinds of medical equipment need electricity.”
He voiced his concerns to state lawmakers and PG&E at a Senate Subcommittee on Gas, Electric and Transportation Safety hearing Wednesday morning.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Preparing for Electric Utility De-Energization” was the hearing’s title.
“I am not satisfied, I do not find it well-coordinated," Sen. Henry Stern (D-Calabasas) said, referring to PG&E's Public Safety Power Shutoff Plan and its meager suggestions offered to people facing a days-long outage. "It’s not enough to say, ‘Have a go-bag and good luck’ or ‘Find a cooling facility.’”
Sumeet Singh is PG&E’s Vice President of Asset & Risk Management and the Community Wildfire Safety Program. He was the utility’s representative fielding the tough questions.
"I believe that trust has to be earned, and PG&E has a long way to go to be trusted within your service area, quite candidly,” Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) told Singh, stipulating that his interrogation was not personal but, rather, reflective of his feelings toward the company’s actions.
He decried PG&E’s communication, citing a meeting between the utility and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors earlier this summer.
“Nearly every question that was asked of the team that showed up couldn't be answered,” McGuire said. “The team said that there are going to be 600 fire cameras that are going to be deployed. 'How many in Mendocino County?' (supervisors asked). 'We don't know,' (PG&E replied).”
“This has been such a haphazard approach,” McGuire said. “We're knee-deep in this, and I've got to be honest, the frustration is growing."
Singh agreed that the communication inadequacies McGuire highlighted were unacceptable.
"We own it. I own it. All the things that you said, I own it,” Singh said. “I'm making a commitment that we're going to do everything we can to ensure we're satisfying the needs and the interests in regards to the information that our team should really be providing to you."
Singh’s response prompted surprise from subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).
"'I own it. I have never heard that in the nine years that I have been working on issues related to PG&E,” Hill said, adding that he was pleased to at least be hearing it now.
Some leaders want more oversight over PG&E's ability to cut power to a community in order to avoid starting a wildfire.
"I’m very concerned about this system we have set up. I’m very concerned about who’s making these decisions," Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said. "I think we need to take a hard look at the oversight of these shutdowns.”
“There needs to be some state regulatory role for deciding when the switch gets turned off or on,” Mayor Liccardo said. “We cannot simply delegate these decisions to private companies, particularly those companies like PG&E with a horrible track record for public safety."
Liccardo called for PG&E to improve its communication with local leaders about impending possible shutoffs.
“We welcome additional ideas in terms of how more effectively we can communicate,” Singh said in response. “We have engaged with the City of San Jose on multiple occasions with regards to...how we would go about the notification process.”
One main, resounding theme is that action must be taken swiftly.
"We can no longer afford to discover our failures with more fire events in the state of California,” said Sen. Jeff Stone (R-La Quinta).
“As a utility, our most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and our communities we serve,” Singh said.
30,000 miles of PG&E powerlines cross fire-risk areas, Singh said, and the utility is working to make them safer. Critics say that work should have been done years ago.
Wednesday’s hearing was just that, and no decisions were made.
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