Come the high fire threat season this fall, most of Calistoga will not be left in the dark and without power as it has been in the past.
That’s because the city is partnering with Pacific Gas & Electric for backup power during the company’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS).
On Tuesday, the city council approved a plan for PG&E to install a pre-installed interconnect hubs (PIH) on south Washington Street on city-owned property near the Little League field and the Vine Trail pathway.
The hubs will consist of an underground protection grid, three above-ground transformers, fencing, lighting, and a periodic placement of seven generators on city-owned property, according to the staff report. The PIH is proposed to supply 6.5 megawatts of power.
The project will be at no monetary cost to the city.
The intent, said PG&E representative John Stallman, and Calistoga Acting City Manager and Public Works Director Mike Kirn, is to move quickly to have everything in place by September.
Stallman said the PSPS could be from one to up to 10 events, depending on weather conditions.
“Fire season is extending to year-round according to Cal Fire. We should be prepared year-round,” he said.
Most of Calistoga is in a Tier 1 area, but it is surrounded and served by higher-risk Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas. That means the town will be subject to power shutoffs with little advance notice, and lasting 3-7 days per event. Last fall, the city’s power was interrupted for about 48 hours.
“We’re all in a new normal; there is no magic wand for PSPS longevity. The project will be about as remote and away from the community as you can get,” Kirn said, referring to noise and diesel pollution from the PIH.
Concerns about the location were expressed by residents who have been working toward a dog park in the area, and also the proximity to the community garden, the Vine Trail pathway and the Little League field.
In voting for the plan Council Member Gary Kraus emphasized public safety issues when the power goes out for extended periods of time such as school closings, people using private generators, not being able to use computers, and lighting candles.
“In a long-term PSPS there are all kinds of things that are negative,” he said.
Vice-Mayor Michael Dunsford voted for the plan while saying moving the dog park would be a priority and suggested an alternative place for it could be at the fairgrounds, which the city is in the process of purchasing.
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Dunsford also noted that “We have to protect our wine and tourism industries. When the power goes out, visitors go home.”
It also draws media attention from around the nation, as it did last year.
“Bad press also has a negative impact,” he said. “We can’t not do this. It’s a public safety issue. Timing is of the essence to get ready before the fall.”
The plan was approved with an understanding that there will be flexibility regarding the exact location of the project in the area, and coordination with the city and residents on details on the project.
The meeting was conducted by Dunsford, as Mayor Chris Canning was absent due to travel. Council Member Don Williams cast a dissenting vote.
The secondary and a more temporary location for the project would have been on city-owned property at Lincoln Avenue and Silverado Trail, closer to homes, and the gateway to the city.
The council also heard concerns and complaints about the area west of the Napa River which will not be powered by the PHI. In an unfortunate side-effect of the way the electric lines are laid out, Rancho de Calistoga mobile home park and the Riverlea subdivision are adjacent to Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas, and outside of the city’s Tier 1 layout. That means that those areas will most likely not benefit from the generators, and will be without power during the shutoffs.
However, PG&E is willing to work with the community and other vendors, such as Home Depot, to help supply generators and other power to residents, Stallman said.
“As we move into high fire threat season, this is a short-term solution. In the long term, PG&E can reroute distribution lines, but that infrastructure takes time,” Stallman said.
Kirn estimated it could take up to $3 million for that long-term solution.
“At the end of the day we’re trying to help most of the people with the least amount of impact,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city is still moving ahead towards a microgrid for cleaner and more sustainable power.
“The microgrid is still on track but we need an immediate solution for the fall,” Kirn said. “If (the PIH) can take care of most of the city we’ve accomplished our goal until we have a better alternative.”
There were also questions about using the current generators located at the substation on Highway 29. Stallman explained that these are temporary backup support for the work being done on lines from Santa Rosa to St. Helena and will be removed by October.