As residents stock up on emergency supplies, St. Helena businesses are bracing for what could be a series of prolonged power outages during the height of the tourist season.
PG&E plans to shut down parts of its power grid when extreme weather conditions are forecast, such as the high winds that contributed to the 2017 wine country wildfires. Each Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) could last as long as three days while crews inspect power lines and ensure that it’s safe to turn the power back on.
An outage lasting several days would pose a significant problem for businesses like El Bonita Motel. It has a small generator that can power a computer station in the office and facilitate check-in and check-out, and there’s a flashlight in each room.
“But that’s it, pretty much,” said manager Pierrette Therene. “We don’t have a backup plan for water or electricity in the rooms. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best.”
A generator that could power the entire property would be expensive and noisy. She hopes the city of St. Helena considers a backup power system similar to the microgrid being installed in Calistoga.
Debbie Fradelizio of Gillwoods Café also hopes St. Helena investigates a microgrid that could kick in whenever PG&E shuts down the main grid.
Absent a solution like that, Gillwoods would need a generator to stay open, she said. But a city-wide outage would still affect business.
“You lose your tourist population if they’re afraid to come,” Fradelizio said. “Our community is already struggling, and to have one more thing that would keep people away – that’s really hard.”
At local wineries, outages could affect production facility, air-conditioned and humidified storage areas, and the cash registers that ring up purchases and process credit card transactions.
“It sounds foolish, but we don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” said Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode.
She added that tastings and sales could still take place during an outage, with staff writing down credit card numbers and processing the transactions later.
Spottswoode has a solar system, but the batteries necessary to store that electricity to use during an outage are too expensive, she said. As technology advances, prices could become more reasonable.
Southbridge Napa Valley has contingency plans to deal with long-term outages, said general manager Marcelle Adderley. Auxiliary lighting is available in each guest room and, with the elevators out of commission, guests will be escorted up and down the stairs.
“It’s not a perfect way to have a vacation, but it’s a necessity to make sure our guests are safe,” she said. “The only uncertain thing is how long it’s going to take to turn the power back on.”
The city of St. Helena recently sent a letter to local businesses urging them to be prepared for multi-day outages.
“Do they have redundant on site? What alternatives have they explored? Can they do their transactions through a chip on a cell phone as opposed to a cash register?” said City Manager Mark Prestwich. “We want businesses to start thinking about their contingency plans.”
St. Helena City Hall, the police station and the firehouse are already hooked up to generators, and the city is also securing a grant to install a generator at the St. Helena Public Library, he said. In the meantime, the city could procure a rented generator on short notice so that people can come to the library to cool off and charge their phones.
The city is also in the early stages of investigating a microgrid, Prestwich said.
Steves Hardware is equipped with generators and plans to stay open even during an extended outage, said Courtney Menegon. She’s recommending that customers stock up on emergency supplies ahead of time so that there’s enough to go around during an outage.
“It’s more a case of when than if,” she said. “We try to stock everything – flashlights, lanterns, generators, water, chargers.”
Central Valley Builders plans to install a back-up power source in about a month, before the height of the fire season.
“Hopefully we have a mellow summer and we don’t have to use it,” said store manager Jared Wilson.
A rented generator prevented spoilage at Gott’s while the power was out during the 2017 fires. Owner Joel Gott plans to install a permanent generator ahead of this summer’s outages.
While he’d prefer to spend money on maintenance instead of a generator, “For us there’s no way around it,” he said.
“Our biggest concern is our staff – when happens to them (during an extended outage)?” Gott said. “When you lose inventory, you can replace it. But you can’t replace your team.”
An out-of-work staff is also a concern for Eduardo Martinez at Market restaurant. He’s prepared his employees on how they can keep the restaurant running during an outage.
“I want to try to avoid, as much as possible, the loss of income for my staff,” Martinez said.