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PG&E Returns

Last July 16 PG&E sent a youngish guy named Matt Pender, PG&E’s “Director, Community Wildfire Safety Program Program Management Office,” to a Supes meeting to explain their planned Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) program for the 2019 fire season. It didn’t go well. Pender was very ill prepared. He not only had little if any response to a continuous stream of complaints, but he didn’t even have much Mendo-specific info. After that weak presentation, the Board wrote a pointed letter to P&GE asking for a follow-up visit with more Mendo-specific info.

So Pender was back in from of some skeptical Supervisors last Tuesday to try again.

In July Pender had ended almost every sentence with “…right?” when it simply wasn’t. This time we only counted him saying “right?” once. As before, it was still not particularly “right,” but at least he kept that particular verbal tic in check. 

Pender also had more Mendo-ish info this time, albeit still insufficient for the Supervisors, especially Supervisor Ted Williams who tried several times to pin Pender down without success.

One noteworthy tidbit Pender offered was that PG&E has installed around 150 more remotely controlled shut off switches in Mendocino County which would allow them to shut down smaller segments of the distribution lines than previously and limit the outages to smaller areas if the danger is in Mendocino County. 

Pender also noted that there are three main trunk lines coming into Mendocino County, one from the north, one from the east and one from the souith. The eastern and southern trunk lines run through the high fire danger zones and are the most vulnerable to shut off. But, Pender said, if only one of them was shut off, the other two trunk lines could probably handle most of Mendo’s power load. However, if two of them were shut off (east and south) then the line from the north (Humboldt County), might not have enough capacity to keep Mendo lit up. 

Pender also said that PG&E has assembled some, let’s call them, “pop up resource centers” ready to to be set up in Ukiah and maybe elsewhere which could allow some locals to sit under some tents in the shade while their cellphones recharge along with port-a-potties for people displaced due to days-long power shuts offs. But the pop up centers are small and support maybe 100 or so people. Pender said PG&E plans to set them up in parking lots, mainly in Ukiah. Mr. Pender didn’t want to say which parking lots or where because, he explained, he didn’t want people to think they’d be in one place only to find out they were at another when the power goes out. 

Presumably PG&E’s notification system — which is still based on only robo-calls to registered government service agencies and customers who have signed up for them — will include information on where the pop up centers are when the shut-offs are imminent. 

Pender said that PG&E would try to give customers 48 hour notice of shut offs, or maybe 24 hour notice, or maybe less — it depends on the weather and what their predictions tell them. 

Pender said that they don’t expect shut offs to last more than 48 hours either. But when Williams tried to pin him down on how many days people should actually plan on, Pender repeatedly hedged saying it depends on the weather. 

Supervisor John Haschak narrowed the outage time frame by explaining to Pender that even in the best of circumstances with a relatively short high-wind event and short shut-off, it would still take PG&E a couple of days to re-inspect the lines before they’re re-powered. Meaning that two days is basically the minimum outage if they do it, and longer if the conditions call for it.

Mr. Pender refused to acknowledge that PG&E was creating more of a fire hazard by forcing people to use hundreds if not thousands of portable generators all over Mendo in all sorts of situations with accompanying fuel storage and possible spills, loose wires and cords, sparks, mis-installations, etc. — thus effectively admitting that the planned shut-offs are more about keeping PG&E from being blamed for fires than they are for overall “public safety.”

Supervisor Williams noted from Pender’s charts that PG&E says they are “hardening” some of their lines. But so far the “hardening” (better insulated wires, stronger poles, etc.) has been done on only about one mile out of over 2300 miles of the lines in Mendocino County. They “plan” to harden 150 miles “this year” (no deadlines) out of over 25,000 miles of PG&E’s total Nor-Cal grid.

Pender also said PG&E had no plans to reimburse anybody for anything that the County or customers may be out of pocket for to keep the juice on while PG&E power is off. 

Williams’ final exchange with Pender summed up the situation:

Williams: “Given that PG&E has held been held responsible for the fires in recent years from energized lines, if you have de-energized lines causing property loss and loss of life from fires, do you think PG&E should be held accountable for those as well? If you shut the lines off and something bad happens, do you think you should be responsible for that?”

Pender: “I don't think I understand what kind of tragedy could come about from that.”

Williams: “Shutting off electricity to this county means that generators will be coming on at a dangerous time when PG&E doesn't want its own lines on. Gas generators will be running up against dry grass. Say there's a fire. Do you think PG&E should be responsible for that outcome because your de-energized lines are the proximate cause of the fire that would result?”

Pender: “I don't personally but I don't think that's for me to judge.”

Williams: “In the past we've had major property damage and great bodily injury and death and we are asking PG&E and the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] for help and so far we get a few grant programs and slideshows and such. I'm worried about our vulnerable population. I don't mean to give you a hard time. I know you are in the hot seat. I don't envy you. But so far we have not heard an answer as to how we can prepare. We don't have the funds to adequately prepare. So when something happens we will be asking, where do we go from here? Who's responsible? It can't be local government. What do you recommend?”

Pender: “I'm not focused on the question of who is responsible for another fire. I'm focused on how do we prevent another fire and how do we all do that together because the ground has shifted underneath us and the wildfire risk is higher.”

Williams: “We know it's changed. But we also have PG&E — you are showing 2334 miles of lines in Mendocino County through some Tier 3 high hazard zones and there is less than a mile of hardening. We understand we’re not getting much of it here in Mendocino County. But could we at least have a plan showing where the highest risk zones will be hardened this year? We have citizens who are vulnerable and they will have their power shut off and if they have a small generator fire they won't have well water to run it to extinguish the fire. That's not a good situation for us. I would like your company to step up and be a partner with us and instead you give us very vague answers. We don't know how many shelters or where they'll be or what capacity they will have or how the parking will work. It's not a lot to work with.”

Pender: “I share your focus on keeping the community safe and preventing wildfires. I understand where you're coming from and I equally appreciate the challenges presented to you all. I don't think you think it's right for us to keep our lines on in any conditions. We have direct guidance from the state and multiple levels that we should have this program and it needs to be a tool of last resort.”

Williams: “Understood. But risk is hazard offset by mitigation. What you are saying is there is an increased risk because the hazard has grown, climate change, infrastructure has not been maintained by an investor-owned utility. But that has not been balanced by a mitigation offset. We are very weak on mitigation. Mitigation would be hardening lines and doing more clearing than 4 feet around the lines, working with local government to establish shelters that are fixed and well known and well advertised and have flush toilets. A lot of mitigation could be done to protect the community. I'm not holding PG&E responsible for climate change or fire behavior that we have never seen before. But I do believe there is room for mitigation. I appreciate this slideshow. It seems to apply to our county somewhat this time. But it's really not enough. This is like the utility putting out the absolute minimum effort and cost.”

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