Bay Area communities experience PG&E power outages without notice

Communities around the Bay Area beset by frequent and random power outages the past two months are beginning to complain.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) has sent a letter to PG&E's CEO demanding answers for her constituents in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Some have experienced several lengthy outages recently, due to heightened sensitivity settings on power lines. The lines, if disturbed, shut themselves down immediately, whether touched by a tree limb, bird, squirrel or wind gust.

Eshoo's letter reads in part, "While I appreciate the utility’s long-overdue attention to wildfire prevention, safety need not necessarily come at the expense of reliability. Unexpected and days-long outages are more than an inconvenience, they pose their own health and safety risks."

PG&E has recalibrated lines that run through high fire threat areas, at least during the current fire season. 

The change has also brought blackouts to Half Moon Bay as well as rural swaths of Marin and Sonoma County.

"I think turning power off to keep fire from roaring through, no problem," said Mary Raya of Occidental, which was hit by a day-long outage on Saturday. "I'm 100 percent in agreement, the less spark the better, so shut it down!" 

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Occidental, just five miles from the ocean, is nestled in forest.

But the latest outage surprised many, as the weather was cold and rainy that morning. 

"It's frustrating because it's not a weather event that is causing this," said physician Audrey Desky, whose patient consultations have been disrupted by outages.

"We all want to be safe, and I'm not an engineer, but still this doesn't seem right."

Even more dismayed are the owners of Occidental's businesses, at least those without generators.

"This entire town pretty much depends on weekend business," said Jenay Hofftin, owner of the Altamont General Store, a cafe and market on Main Street.

Hofftin was unable to remain open Saturday, sent her staff home, sold-off food and took a big loss for the day.

"This is devastating, we can't afford to lose power every week and it's happened four or five times the last six weeks."

KTVU first reported about this trend last week after residents of Lagunitas in west Marin County complained about recurring outages.

The San Geronimo Valley, which also includes Forest Knolls, Woodacre and San Geronimo, has experienced 6 outages in six weeks.

They began when PG&E initiated the "fast trip" sensors in late July.

"We have increased the sensitivity so if there is a fault detected on the line, it shuts off faster and more often," said PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras. "The line shuts off automatically and doesn't provide a spark."

For some, repeated outages are an inconvenience, easily shrugged off.

"It's absolutely nothing compared to burning to death or having your home of 20 years burned to the ground, no comparison," said Occidental resident Guy Gullion.

But others say the change was not well-conveyed, and that the outages come without warning and sometimes last a day or more.

"What they do is they give us a timeline, and generally they go eight hours over that, and when we ask what’s the problem, the response from PG&E is 'we don't know what it is,'" said Occidental resident Yvette Reynolds.

Added her spouse Joe Pedalino, "Our feeling is that these outages are primarily in the interest of PG&E and it's not about us, not about the customers."

Once a line de-energizes, a patrol must inspect by air and ground, to identify the fault and repair if necessary, before the circuit can be re-energized.

To speed the process, PG&E is adding more field crews and adjust line sensitivity as needed.

As unhappy ratepayers struggle to work from home, care for families, and run businesses, they are turning to elected officials for relief.  

"The current situation cannot become the new normal," declared Rep. Eshoo, in her letter to PG&E.