PG&E is expanding its resources for customers at risk of being affected by planned power outages as California's wildfire season rages on.
Public Safety Power Shutoffs, or PSPS events, are part of PG&E's efforts to prevent wildfires that could happen if high winds cause damage to power lines. A combination of factors such as low humidity, high winds, dry material and nearby tall trees can cause PG&E to temporarily shut off power until the danger of a wildfire has passed.
PG&E has only reported one PSPS event in 2021 so far: a planned outage from Jan. 19 to 21 that impacted about 5,100 Central California residents after 83 mph wind gusts created an imminent threat of wildfire.
Nearly a third of PG&E's power lines are in areas now designated as high fire-threat districts by the California Public Utilities Commission, according to PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian.
In response, Sarkissian said, PG&E has made several safety improvements to prevent or minimize PSPS events. As of April, PG&E has strengthened 180 miles of lines by installing stronger poles, covering power lines or moving them underground. The utility has also installed 925 sectionalizing devices, which can turn off power in just specific sections of the power grid, keeping the power on in areas that would have otherwise also been impacted by the outage.
"Due to these upgrades — the system hardening and the distribution microgrids — we do not expect a return to the large scale PSPS events of 2019," Sarkissian said.
In 2019, numerous power shutoffs occurred throughout wildfire season, leaving hundreds of thousands of Northern and Central California residents without power for up to several days at a time. This May, the CPUC ordered PG&E to pay $106 million in fines and customer bill credits in response to several violations that occurred during the 2019 shutoffs. Chief among those violations was their website being unavailable during the PSPS events, preventing impacted residents from being able to access resources and information.
Sarkissian said PG&E has learned from the 2019 outages and made backend improvements to its website to prevent it from going down during future PSPS events. Residents can also sign up for text, call or email alerts for when a PSPS event might impact them or a relative.
Though PSPS events are a "last resort" for PG&E, Sarkissian encouraged customers to plan ahead for resources they may need in case of a long-term shutoff. Customers who depend on power for medical needs can register for PG&E's Medical Baseline Program, which — along with an additional energy allotment each month — includes extra notifications about upcoming PSPS events.
They can also access portable batteries, hotel stays and meal replacements through PG&E partnerships with local community-based organizations, such as food banks.
All customers can also take advantage of PG&E's Community Resource Centers, where there are chargers for devices and medical equipment, updated information about ongoing PSPS events, water and snacks.
In the 2020 wildfire season, Sarkissian said the centers enforced social distancing and masking to promote COVID-19 safety, though their policies for 2021 may be updated based on public safety guidelines at the time of the event. PG&E hopes to open 370 total resource centers in 2021.
In the meantime, Sarkissian pointed customers toward the utility's website to access multilingual resources. PG&E is also hosting a webinar series where customers can learn more about PSPS events and wildfire safety in their county. The next wildfire safety webinar will take place on Thursday for residents of Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.
Sarkissian said community engagement at the webinars has been strong, in part due to partnerships with cities and counties to promote sharing information that will help keep customers safe during planned power outages.
"PG&E's most important responsibility is the safety of our customers and the communities that we serve," she said. "We are doing more to help our customers and communities than ever before, before, during and after PSPS events."
Customers can attend upcoming webinars or view recordings of past ones on PG&E's website:
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