Residents of Calistoga lose power during PG&E shutoff

Calistoga wasn't surprised to lose power Tuesday at 6:30 pm.

It was a planned PG&E public safety power shutdown, or PSPS, the first of the season.

What was a surprise: the entire community remained off for hours.

A specially-constructed micro-grid that is supposed to power the east side of Calistoga malfunctioned.

It's designed to take up to two hours to energize, but took almost twice that long.

"These events are very trying on the community, it's exhausting," said Mayor Chris Canning, who notes Calistoga was the site of PG&E very first pre-emptive power shutdown in 2018, with numerous others since. 

"While we're getting better at it, it's not something we want to perfect because it means we're getting too many of them," said Canning.

Calistoga is located near transmission lines that straddle Napa and Sonoma Counties and run across wildland slopes with high fire danger.

So the town is a frequent PSPS target during the months when tourism is at its peak.  

"We are going to be fine through this one, it will be our first time with a brand new generator, so fingers crossed," said Jennifer Bennett, owner of Lovina Restaurant in downtown Calistoga.

Lovina is on the west side of the Napa River, not served by the micro-grid.

Fed-up with losing business and money to outages, Bennett and her landlord split the $20,000 cost of a new generator for the property.

But her optimism didn't last.

Within minutes of starting up Tuesday evening, the generator quit.

While waiting for an electrician to arrive, kitchen staff worked by the light of their cell phones.

Diners continued to arrive, with dozens of reservations in jeopardy.

Bennett's frustration was not only with the generator, but PG&E.  

"They send out these texts telling you to 'make a plan' but I say 'you're the huge utility company, you make a plan!"

Calistoga has about 1000 west-side customers like Lovina, in the dark.

"The thing I worry about is the food in my refrigerator, but I can live without electricity for a while," said retiree Corlis Meyer, who lives in the Rancho de Calistoga mobile home park.

Meyer planned to spend Tuesday night reading by lantern for a few hours, then go to bed early.

"It's really inconvenient," she admitted.

"You don't realize how dependent you are on electricity and all that but when it goes out, it's no fun at all."

Calistoga fire crews will be making regular check-ups on seniors in the facility while the power is out.

"This is always a hardship because Calistoga isn't a very large town," said Fire Captain Jeremy Campbell, who is concerned about wind- and fire risk- escalating at high elevations.

The department has up-staffed all engines for the duration of the Red Flag Warning.

"We take it really seriously because we've had some unfortunate experiences here with fires. Any fire that starts under red flag conditions is worrisome for us."

The mayor has vivid memories of the fire that precipitated the adoption of PSPS practices.

"We know fire danger first hand because the Tubbs fire started in Calistoga," said Canning, while has been a vocal critic of PG&E practices.

In recent years, the utility has tried to provide more notice and minimize the duration of shut-offs.

"I'll acknowledge the improvements they've made but they are far from done," said Canning.

"Until we are a fully energized community regardless of the weather conditions we are not finished."

The current PSPS could impact 51,000 customers in 18 Northern California Counties, including Napa, Sonoma, Solano, Alameda and Contra Costa.

It is expected to last until late Wednesday, and possibly into Thursday, if conditions warrant.