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Mendo v. PG&E

PG&E’s designated Flak Catcher at last Tuesday’s Supervisor meeting was a young guy named Matt Pender with the impressive sounding title of “Director, Community Wildfire Safety Program Program Management Office.” It quickly became obvious that he was only there to insulate the real big shots at PG&E from a barrage of pointed questions from the Supervisors.

Poor Mr. Pender had hardly begun his presentation running down PG&Es numbers of weather stations, observation cameras, and the miles of transmission line “hardening,” when Supervisor Ted Williams asked how many were in Mendocino County. 

Pender said he thought there might be 20 weather stations and no cameras in Mendocino County. Williams wanted to know where the weather stations were. Pender didn’t know. Williams asked how many cameras were planned for Mendo. Pender didn’t know, but none were in the pipeline at present. Referring to Pender’s claim that PG&E would have 90% of their lines covered by cameras, Williams asked how they’d get to that percentage without significant coverage in Mendocino County. Pender didn’t know. 

“Looking at the map,” said Williams, “we have the most impact, and yet no cameras, no hardened lines, minimal weather stations. … And yet you have no plan to add resiliencey and safety in this area. It is alarming.”

Mr. Pender had several catch phrases which he deployed repeatedly: “I get it,” “This is a serious issue,” “We’re not taking this lightly.” And perhaps most frequent and most irritating was his tendency to end his answers with “…right?” To which one woman in the audience later replied, “Whenever Mr. Pender said ‘right?’ I immediately thought, ‘wrong’.”

Williams got some cheers from the audience when he asked, “For years PG&E has priortized shareholder profits over safety. No you’re shutting us off and letting us absorb the risk. How long to you plan to shift the risk to the public, to us? Months? Years?”

Pender said there was no sunset date and the weather is worse these days, adding, “No matter how hardened the system is there are still conditions that could require this. As our system is improved the threshholds may increase and the risk would drop.”

Williams asked Pender why PG&E doesn’t install equipment that can detect a failure when a line drops to the ground?

Pender replied that “Electricity moves at the speed of light.”

Williams: “No, lines drop by gravity, technology that controls it is at speed of light.”

Pender replied, “Australia has that capability and we are exploring it — right?”

Then it was Supervisor McCowen’s turn.

McCowen: “The unilateral way that PG&E is doing this leads to a cynical interpretation. At what point did the inconveniences of rural life factor in? Avoiding your responsibility for safety [due to secondary affects on rural communities] will result in death and loss of property. Public agencies are scrambling to address what you have caused. When did this factor in? There is an overwhelming risk to life and property [with shut offs that last up to five days or more].”

McCowen pointed out that with lots of people buying generators there’s a big risk of of misinstallation, fuel storage problems, dangerous locations, etc. 

Pender said that was “a fair point,” adding that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had “thoroughly discussed” allowing local agencies to veto shut offs. “But the PUC said no. They are PG&E’s lines. The risk of our lines starting a fire outweighs the secondary risks. We understand the secondary impacts. But individuals have to take their own steps.”

Supervisor John Haschak wanted to know more about how shutoffs on trunk lines might affect Mendo, asking, “At what point are we affected by Vacaville?”

Pender could only offer generalities, pointing out that distribution lines serve smaller areas but transmission (or trunk) lines serve larger areas and PG&E has different threshholds for shutoffs in different situations and areas. In some cases if one line into Mendo is cut off, it’s possible that a line coming in from the opposite side might compensate and cover much of the area that was first cut off. “It’s complicated,” insisted Pender. 

Supervisor Carre Brown wanted to know about advance notice of shutoffs. Pendar said they would “not always” give 48 hours notice, sometimes there are “really sharp” [i.e., very short] notifications.”

Brown asked if PG&E had learned from their earlier shutoffs in the north bay area. Pendar insisted they had, but didn’t offer any specifics about what they had learned.

Williams returned to point out that Mendo is a poor county, yet now PG&E is adding another expense costing potentially hundreds of thousands of unbudgeted dollars for generators, electrical system modifications, overtime, who knows what else? “Is PG&E willing to reimburse us [the County] for actual costs?”

Pender said there might be some grant programs available, but “I can’t say.”

Williams: “Will you help us with the grants? People could die. We could use help in outreach, help with emergencies. This is a gloomy story and you are offering no resources.”

Pender: “We will help you contact grant resources. I don’t know the details. This is a new threat. PG&E is just one potential source of fire.”

Yes, but PG&E is the only source of “safety” shut-offs.

“What are you willing to do to tangibly to assist then?” continued Williams. “What about cooling centers? Recharging wheelchairs.”

Pender said they are “filling out” their plan for community resource centers, but no dates or locations were mentioned. But people still need to be prepared. 

Williams: “Yes, but what tangible things are you doing for Mendocino County? Maps? Locations? Stocking of supplies and equipment?”

Pender said he had no maps because the shut-offs depend on circumstances. “Not all of Mendo would be impacted the same,” said Pender, so resource centers would be “only where needed.”

Williams pointed out that most emergency medical people are volunteers and they are not prepared to carry much emergency oxygen around for people with difficulty breathing stemming from extended outages. “You’ve offered some generic slides,” said Williams, “but no Mendocino County specifics, no financial information. it’s all very vague, yet power could be off for days.”

“We are trying to prepare people for this,” explained Pendar. “Things have changed over time. We all need to be ready for new conditions. We are trying to change people’s mindset.”

“So all we get is a mindset change?” asked Williams.

McCowen decried PG&E’s refusal to listen to feedback, adding that they had done “no planning for the secondary aspects [generators, fuel storage, health and safety…]. You caused this, and you are throwing the impact on us.”

“We get it,” said Pender again. “It would have been nice to have more time. The heat [that Pender was getting from the public and the board] is warranted, it’s a serious issue.”

Supervisor Carre Brown was annoyed too: “This is just thrown on us. We are responsible for the health and safety of County residents. But as a company you don’t care, neither do your stockholders.”

“I get it,” repeated Pender. “There are serious consequences on people who are affected.”

Brown continued: “The attitude of PG&E is not satisfactory. It is being thrown at us. You’re telling us it’s our problem when bad things might happen. It’s really unfair.”

Haschak agreed: “PG&E decides [to shut us off] all by yourself. You care more about stockholders than the public welfare. I’m skeptical of the goodwill of PG&E.”

Pender said he hoped to get their “community resource centers” set up and running in 24 hours or less, adding that PG&E “plans for sooner.”

Williams: “24 hours? Why so long. We, the government, can do better than that. We had emergency centers set up in less than four hours when the fires hit this County. Why can’t you, private industry [do at least that well]?”

CEO Carmel Angelo announced that when her office set-up the presentation they had asked PG&E for “decision-makers.” “Where are they?” Angelo asked, adding, “They need to come back for answers to Mendocino specific questions.”

Pender replied, “I am the decision maker.”

“OK,” said Willliams, “then decide on two hours.”

Pender thought that was funny and giggled a little, adding that he “can’t guarantee that.”

McCowen returned to the secondary risk problem: “Lots of people are buying generators and there’s a risk of poor fuel storage and misinstallations. You have no plan, you don’t care.”

Pender: “People can go to PG& for safety sheets, diagrams, buying guides. We have asked customers to tell us where their generators are.”

McCowen: “Half the people won’t even get on your website.”

Williams wanted to know exactly how PG&E would notify government agencies and the public of pending shut-offs. Pender said they had set up a robo-call system. 

Williams: “Robo calls?”

Pender: “Yes.”

Williams: “How do we get assurance that these calls are going to the right place?”

Pender: “We also notify 911 dispatch.”

Williams, using emergency services language from his days as a fire chief and first responder replied, “I want to know you called and that the CEO replied, ‘Copy’.”

Pender wouldn’t even guarantee person to person notifications to key county officials other than the robo-calls which, he said, would go to county official phone numbers first, then to customers who have signed up for notifications.

CEO Angelo followed up about a second presentation with, hopefully, PG&E providing more about their plans for Mendocino County and more specific answers. Angelo asked Pender’s associate Ms. Allison Talbott of PG&E’s Eureka office (who hadn’t participated in the exchanges with Pender) when PG&E could come back. 

Ms. Talbott said she’d check her calendar. 

PS. At the end of the discussion, the PG&E reps said they were going over to speak to Mendo’s Emergency Services coordinator Rick Ehlert about plans, locations and notifications. But on Wednesday, a couple of people who were at that meeting told us that PG&E had offered no additional information and could not promise anything more than robo-call notifications. 

PPS. Later in the day on Tuesday Supervisor Williams posted the following comment on the Fifth District Facebook page:

“Pacific Gas & Electric presented their ‘Community Wildfire Safety Program’ to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors today. Unsatisfied by their lack of full answers and dismayed by their unwillingness to partner with us on solutions, I suggested they return when better prepared. I’m thankful for the support of my colleagues in voicing a united message. More than an inconvenience, execution of this plan without further coordination could be fatal for our most vulnerable residents.”

Some Comments…

The Supervisors did a good job pointing out how PG&E’s public safety power shut-off program is a thinly veiled attempt to shift liability from PG&E (and their insurance provider(s), probably including the state and Public Utilities Commission itself which has utterly failed in regulating the irresponsible company) to the public and local agencies. By allowing PG&E to unilaterially decide when to shut off power for “safety” reasons, the utility company is likely to be overly cautious to reduce liability exposure, especially in rural areas where customers and usage are relatively low, because a shut-down of a few thousand rural customers for a few days at a time won’t cost them as much as shutting down more highly populated areas for days at a time. That’s probably why they’re predicting up to 80 days of shutdown in this area for the year.

PG&E’s decision to send a young, ill-prepared rep with no authority to commit the company to anything was a blatant insult. Mr. Pender didn’t offer anything besides what was in the presentation and wasn’t even prepared to answer any Mendo-specific questions. The Board should have demanded a senior VP for this area with real authority at a minimum. It was disappointing to see that they couldn’t even get a commitment for a follow-up meeting. But even then, nobody seemed to be taking notes for which questions the Board wanted answers to. For many of their questions, there’s absolutely no need to wait until an as-yet unscheduled follow-up meeting. The Board, the CEO, the Sheriff and local fire departments should assemble their unanswered questions and fire them off to PG&E now with a deadline to answer. 

For example:

How quickly specifically will PG&E guarantee the set up of their “community resource centers” from the time the decision to shut down is made? PG&E says they’ll give 48 hour notice of planned shutdowns (where possible) and that they can get a “resource center” up and running in 24 hours. So, will PG&E guarantee that such “resource centers” will be deployed along with the notifications so that they’ll be in place before the actual shut-down? (And what specifically will the resource centers provide?)

What specific methods of notification will be employed besides simple (and unconfirmed) robo-calls to unspecified officials?

Who does Mendo contact during the shut-down for problems, or timing questions? (Hopefully, not Mr. Pender.)

It’s important to make the distinction between the effects of these planned shutdowns and the effects of actual fire emergencies. Given that all of this is uncharted territory, there needs to be more of an effort on overall fire prevention and response — and the possibility that a fire will occur DURING an outage (presumably unrelated to PG&E’s lines). Will CalFire and local fire departments be prepared to respond to those fires at the same time that power is off? As the Board noted, there’s a good chance that a fire will be CAUSED by the shutdowns and every effort should be made to prevent that and plan the response(s) while firefighters themselves are deprived of power. As a Willits reader told us recently, “Hell, half the fires the Willits Fire Department responds to now, even with the power on, are are started by tweakers’ generators. Can you imagine some dumb young guy with one of those cheap Costco generator jobs trying to run an undersized extension cord to his frig? At night?” 

If Mendo is as serious as they appear to be in wanting better responses and planning from PG&E, Mendo should not wait until some future meeting to get this going on this stuff. 

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