PG&E power shutoffs will grow in 2019 as wildfire season heats up

Power has been restored to the 27,000 electric customers whose power was shut off by PG&E over the weekend to reduce wildfire risks. 

PG&E's Wildfire Safety Operations Center monitored potential fire conditions amid the windy, dry and hot weather conditions. 

Consumer advocates, firefighters, and electric utilities agree on one thing for sure. 

"The fire season is, in fact, starting much earlier than ever before," said Mark Toney of consumer advocacy group, The Utility Reform Network.

In order to impose a Public Safety Power Shutoff, PG&E and the other electric utilities must have these conditions:

  • A Red Flag Warning declared by the National Weather Service,
  • Forecasts of steady winds above 25 miles an hour with wind gusts of 45 or greater, in the shutoff targeted area
  • Low humidity levels, generally 20 percent or below
  • Critically dry vegetation that could fuel a wildfire

On top of that, a shutoff can be called by real-time observations from utility field crews. 

"And so we're constantly weighing the that balance to make the determination of, you know, when is the appropriate time to call for one of these events," said PG&E Spokesperson Jeff Smith. 

The utility said it tries to give as customers at least 48-hour notice before cutting off the power if possible. 
PG&E also sends a reminder 24 hours before the shutoff and then a final notice by text, email or phone call. 

"Public Service Power Shutoffs should only be used as a last resort," said Toney. "PG&E needs to make sure it trims the trees. It needs to make sure it does the covered conductors and insulated wires to stop fires."

During a shutoff, while PG&E customers get some measure of protection from fire, the utility loses income and customers lose service, business or property such as food.  

"They reported that 50 percent of the peoples' power was restored after 36 hours of being out. That means that 50 percent is more than 36 hours," said Toney. "
However, PG&E says restoring power to residents isn't that easy. 

"It's not just the matter of flipping a switch once the prime fire conditions have reduced," said Smith.

That's because the rules state, before any power can be restored, every inch of every line within the shutoff area must be eyeballed to make sure it's all intact.
This weekend, relatively few customers and power lines were involved.

Where there's a lot more population, it will take a lot more time to inspect the lines.

One expert says California is destined to see many more public safety outages this year.