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California braces for precautionary blackouts as wildfire season begins

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California braces for precautionary blackouts as wildfire season begins

SNL Image

Smoke from a 2016 wildfire looms over power lines in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
Source: Associated Press

As California enters the 2019 wildfire season, some of its most vulnerable residents are voicing concern over utilities' plans to expand the practice of shutting off power to prevent grid infrastructure from sparking the sort of fires that scorched the state in 2017 and 2018.

"De-energization should be treated like an emergency event because the absence of power has life-threatening consequences similar to a natural disaster," Sydney Pickern, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said May 30 in comments at the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco. The commissioners approved initial guidelines for preventive power shutoffs that are a critical component of utilities' 2019 wildfire safety strategies, which regulators also adopted.

The plans do not give enough consideration to senior citizens or disabled persons, and the powered medical equipment many people need to stay alive, said Allie Cannington, a community organizer at the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. "Without power and mitigation plans that have systems to provide sufficient support, the lives of people with disabilities and older adults will be lost," she said.

The approved protocols detail requirements for communicating with and notifying utility customers ahead of intentional blackouts in areas exposed to extreme wildfire danger, coordinating with state emergency and fire agencies, and reporting lessons learned. In a second phase, regulators plan to consider refinements to the notification and communication guidelines, including outreach to vulnerable populations, as well as options for backup power, power shutoff evaluations and other issues.

Despite such efforts, Californians must accept that the state has entered an era of unreliable power in high wildfire-risk regions, CPUC President Michael Picker cautioned.

"I will just repeat my warning that, given the changes that we're seeing in weather and the changes that we're seeing in fire fuels, nobody who lives in wildfire hazard zones should count on a warning or should count on having reliable electricity," Picker said. "This is a new set of conditions that puts large parts of the state at great risk simply because the reliability cannot be guaranteed, either because the utilities aren't taking action to reduce the risk or because of wildfire or some other kind of accident already interrupting power."

'Safety over reliability'

Picker and other commissioners highlighted San Diego Gas & Electric Co. as a forerunner on preventive power cuts and other wildfire safety measures, which the Sempra Energy utility developed after a devastating 2007 wildfire in its service territory.

"We choose safety over reliability," Caroline Winn, COO at SDG&E, said in a presentation at a recent wildfire technology summit in Sacramento. "We had to shift our priorities from keeping the lights on to keeping the public safe. We did a 90-degree pivot."

At first, the utility's power cuts were met with "fierce opposition from the public, from the media, from our county board of supervisors," Winn said. "People didn't understand why we had to turn off the power for public safety, but despite that public criticism, we stayed the course."

De-energization has fueled demand among SDG&E's customers for backup power, prompting the utility to consider a grant program for portable generators. Longer term, SDG&E also is "absolutely" weighing opportunities for community microgrids and storage-backed solar arrays, Winn said on the sidelines of the event.

PG&E Corp. utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co., or PG&E, and Edison International's Southern California Edison Co. hope to emulate SDG&E's success on a larger scale. PG&E, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection related to wildfire liabilities, worked directly with the San Diego utility in developing its wildfire safety strategy, specifically around power shutoffs. One part of PG&E's plan calls for the creation of "resilience zones" that can be isolated from the broader grid and powered by mobile generation during shutoffs.

Regulators hope the practice remains limited. "De-energization is a measure that should be taken as a last resort to prevent devastating wildfires," Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said at the May 30 meeting. "It presents its own safety and health risks" and is "not a means for utilities to avoid wildfire liability."