PG&E generators

PG&E workers were busy Wednesday installing portable generators at a Calistoga substation. This added power supply is being added as the utility warned locals of a possible peremptory power shutoff Thursday due to a heightened wildfire risk. 

CALISTOGA — Pacific Gas & Electric is still in the process of learning how to implement its Planned Safety Power Shutoff program, a company official explained during a town meeting Thursday night.

Aaron Johnson, vice president of PG&E’s fire and safety program, was there at the request of Napa County officials, to explain reasons for, and lessons learned from, a PSPS that left the entire town without power from Oct. 14 to Oct. 15.

PSPS is a new program for the company designed to prevent the kind of wildfire disasters that occurred last October in Napa and surrounding areas. There are still some issues to work out.

“This is a very big deal for us and as a company we know we need to get better, and there is room for improvement and that’s the spirit we come here in,” Johnson said.

About 70 people attended the meeting held at the local high school including residents, business owners, and local government officials, police and fire agencies, and television crews from Sacramento.

Residents have complained of poor communication, slow restoration times, and argued that weather conditions didn’t seem extreme enough to justify the shutoff in October.

Business owners lost tens of thousands of dollars during the power shutdown, and the town made the national news, as it did during the October 2017 wildfires, as a not-safe place to visit.

“It’s a real moment of reckoning. We know we have to do things differently. Fire risk is making (the company) think differently how to keep power flowing, and is

beginning to make changes. We are on a journey and expect it to get better,” Johnson said.

PG&E is expanding its network of weather stations with high definition observation cameras, with a goal of 600 over the next five years. Their images will be available to first responders and residents.

Johnson acknowledged that PG&E needs to work on its messaging to alert customers of safety shutoffs.

The company has learned from other PSPS situations that are implemented in San Diego and Australia. “There are not a lot of utilities out there doing these kinds of things,” Johnson said.

The largest PSPS, in San Diego, involved 19,000 customers. In Northern California, 60,000 PG&E customers were affected during the October shutoff.

“We are developing new practices as a utility. I know we did the right thing and prevented some fires. I’m certain we’ll have to do this again,” Johnson said.

The company is also expanding its vegetation management. The long-term goal is to re-build 7,100 miles of line.

A PSPS is the last tool in the case, Johnson said. A lot of modeling on wind data is done beforehand, but “You design them and then put it into practice and they turn out differently.”

Calistoga is a “unique situation.” It’s a non-high-risk area surrounded by a high-risk area. “We don’t have clearly delineated circuits in Calistoga due to configuration of grid,” but there are plans to rectify that, Johnson said.

On Oct. 7, PG&E installed temporary generators at a substation powering the town, at a cost of about $10,000 a day, to keep Calistoga from “getting caught in the net of the PSPS program.”

Johnson reiterated that the company will not reimburse businesses for losses during such power shutoffs.

Some, like Calistoga business owner Clive Richardson, were incredulous that a 100-year-old company such as PG&E is “still learning. You’re learning on the basis of our loss,” he said.

When the age and fragility of the lines were questioned, Johnson said it wasn’t the lines themselves but things that blow into them, like branches and tarps.

Questions were also raised about reasons for not putting power lines underground. The answer is cost, as underground lines are three to 10 times as expensive, Johnson said.

Johnson was asked his advice for business owners as back-up generators are very expensive. He said there was no easy answer.

“At end of the day each business has to make its own decision. We would need to do this (PSPS) 1 or 2 times a year,” he said.

Business owners also brought up the question of reputation management, and damage that has been done to tourism because of the power outages.

John said that’s “a painful dilemma,” but he would rather have the company be blamed for that than their power lines causing a fire.

“Calistoga as a whole is concerned. The media has been kind and saying that we are still open and a great place to visit, but it is that balance of safety to financials on our side and theirs,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning at the meeting. “The difference now is we know this system (the generators) exists and they can bring it here.”

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You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com or 942-4035.


The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.