California’s PG&E Wildfire Plan Cuts Power to Vulnerable Consumers

A firestorm that began in Napa Valley's Calistoga, roars down the hills from Fountaingrove
George Rose/Getty Images

California’s gas and electric provider has put in place a controversial plan to limit wildfires, including power shutdowns that force some residents to face refrigerators full of spoiled food, having no power for medical devices, or trying to work remotely without access to reliable Internet.

“Ratepayers should not have to sacrifice reliability for safety,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said in a San Francisco Chronicle report about the PG&E system.

The utility company claims that it reduced the number of fires caused by power lines as much as 45 percent last year with a computerized system that shuts down power automatically when it detects problem such as fallen limbs on wires.

The Chronicle reported on the new system, which covers 44,000 miles of distribution power lines in high risk wildfire area. The power lines serve more than 850,000 households and businesses in the state:

But officials in fire-prone areas are watching to see if PG&E is passing too much of the burden for stopping disastrous wildfires onto residents and businesses that have no control over the electric grid — but are dependent on it.

Between late July and November, the system triggered more than 500 power outages affecting more than 560,000 households and businesses. PG&E reported to regulators the average duration of the outages was about nine hours.

PG&E officials say they have fine-tuned the software to limit disruptions, and that the system is an integral part of its “goal of zero utility-caused catastrophic wildfires.”

“These enhanced safety settings help to reduce the current risk of wildfires for our most vulnerable customers and are just one of many wildfire prevention efforts we are employing to strengthen our system, incorporate new technologies and take aggressive action to increase system safety,” according to a statement from Mark Quinlan, PG&E vice president of transmission and distribution system operations.

The Chronicle interviewed a single mom, Christine Wise, who said she lost power a number of times last fall and lost a lot of food. “Of course almost all of those times were right after I’d been to Costco,” Wise said.

PG&E officials told state regulators the utility launched the automated system without notifying the public.

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.