Sudden PG&E power outages become frequent challenge in west Marin

PG&E has programmed some power lines to de-energize for fire prevention, causing frustration in west Marin County. 

Sudden outages have been frequent in August and September, since the internal changes were made.  

"How am I supposed to run a business like this, how can I run this place?" worried Loring Jones on Wednesday, after opening his business then closing a half-hour later when he lost electricity. 

"This is the sixth time in six weeks they've cut the power unannounced, they just drop it on you," said Jones, who has owned the Lagunitas Market and Deli for three years.

Lagunitas has had recurring outages, some lasting all day, affecting more than 700 customers: schools, homes and businesses.

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"We have to get all of our food into the walk-in fridge," said Jones, describing how he rushes each time to keep perishables cold, and his portable generator running.

It is powerful enough to run the freezer and fridge, but not the entire store, so employees are sent home and customers are turned away. 

With summer season, and visitors headed to the coast and campgrounds, affected businesses are losing money they cannot recoup.  

"When it happens, your heart just sinks, and you don't know when it's going to be back on," said Jones.  

Many residents assumed PG&E maintenance or tree removal was to blame for the repeated blackouts.  

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But in response to KTVU2 inquiries, the utility explains it has re-calibrated selected circuits so that lines go dead more easily.

It might be an animal, tree branch, or mylar balloon touching the line, but almost any contact will cause the circuit will de-energize.

"The actual cause of the outages, whether it be a bird or a squirrel, may vary," said Deanna Contreras, spokesperson for PG&E in the North Bay.

"But the duration and frequency of the outages are due to some safety enhancements we've implemented."

"The utility has sent customers postcards and e-mails about the new "fast trip" setting, explaining how lines may be more sensitive for safety. 

Wednesday's outage was caused by a fault detected on a line near Meadow Way and Creamery Road in San Geronimo.

PG&E ground and air patrols were unable to find a reason for it.

"We don't want these lines to self-correct and spark a fire," said Contreras.

"So we've made these adjustments to the technology in dozens of high fire risk areas across the Bay Area."

PG&E estimates that as many as 200 circuits across northern and central California have had their safety protection settings revised to de-energize more readily.

Store owner Jones is stunned to hear the outages are intentional and will be ongoing.

And while he appreciates the need for fire prevention, he finds it unreasonable to impose open-ended outages with no advance notice or time limit, even when weather is calm.

"If that's the new norm, the poles control themselves and turn themselves off at will, I don't have an answer for that, what can we do about that?" said Jones in frustration.