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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Some answers, please, PG&E

Uploaded: Oct 10, 2019
I want to know a lot more about why and who made the PG&E decision to cut off electricity to prevent wildfires to more than 886,000 customers in California – and, more important, why he/they decided to include such a wide swath of customers living between the forests near the Oregon border, through the Sierras and down to the Bay Area. Was a smaller area even considered, or was PG&E trying to cut electricity in every area that might potentially be affected by forest fires? In other words, did this utility company adopt a CYA approach?

Were these blackouts only to ensure the safety of people, as the company said? Or were they because this bankrupt and dysfunctional utility company decided to self-protect itself from another lawsuit?

Why am I suspicious?

The closedown to prevent another suit is good business reasoning, but did they ever consider the impact that would have on 30 counties and more than 2 million residents in total who, PG&E said, might be without electricity for up to seven days, according to the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Management. Seven days! Once a shutdown occurs, the company said it then has to inspect every inch on the lines in the affected area – a seemingly impossible task to quickly accomplish.

The longer the shutdown, the more problems there are for utility customers: the spoiling of food in our refrigerators and freezers, our ability to cook if we have electric stoves, keeping our computers and cell phones charged, getting information if we don’t have battery-operated radios, getting gas for our cars if gas stations close down because of lack of electricity, going to our jobs. How many flashlights or candles will we use up trying to read at night, brush our teeth in the dark, see our digital clocks, and dry our wet hair? What will stores do? Close down?

This area so far (today is Thursday) has been affected in the Palo Alto foothills, and some areas west of Highway 280, like Woodside and Portola Valley. We all had little notice. Perhaps this alert was due to weather predictions of high winds, which contribute mightily to the start of forest fires during a dry season, as we’ve been experiencing. But the utility company has had a year since the Camp Fire that killed 86 people and destroyed Paradise to plan for a similar occurrence, and yet residents get little notice to cope without electricity.

Classes were cancelled at Humboldt State University, Mills College and UC-Berkeley. Banks and businesses were closed; small storeowners were worried about a days long possible shutdown. Cities were notified and some went into a state of emergency, such as San Jose and also Santa Clara County. Morgan Hill declared a nighttime curfew.

Has PG&E made progress since last year’s fire? If there’s another weather alert for high winds this year, does this mean we will have to go through a similar PG&E shutdown in a few days, weeks, or next month?

I want answers. If this was an overreach on PG&E’s part, I want explanations and details on how the company will improve reacting in the future. Utilities are basic to our living.
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Comments

 +   7 people like this
Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 10, 2019 at 4:26 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

This is what happens when corporations, particularly public utilities are under-regulated and when existing regulations aren't enforced. PG&E should have been forced decades ago to invest in the insulation their power lines and burying them underground in areas susceptible to wild fires. They are cutting off power to so many people, making their life miserable, in order to avoid future law suits.

I am not a lawyer, but there must be a gubernatorial emergency executive power that would've prevented PG&E from creating massive misery for the public just to protect the corporation from costly law suits.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 10, 2019 at 9:56 pm

I am not interested in anything PG&E has to say at this stage.

We have had fires where the power was cut off and people had to evacuate without power. We have had fires in areas where there has been no outage.

They are doing this to cover their backs and say, "see, we are trying to do the right thing, we are not the bad guys here".

I am sick of the pathetic attitude to infrastructure here. It would not be allowed in any other modern country.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Bill Conlon, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 11, 2019 at 11:17 am

The reason so many people experience power shutoffs is simple -- they are served by transmission lines that run through fire-prone areas, and there were no alternative transmission paths that could have safely served them.

To avoid future PSPS, a substantial investment must be made in upgrading the transmission system, including new equipment for monitoring and protecting power lines, and addition transmission paths. But the costs are substantial and would result in rate increases, and new transmission would face challenges with acquisition of right of way and face a lengthy permitting process.

High population density means high power needs -- more than be generated locally, so we need to rely on remote sources of electricity, or we need to accept nearby power plants so we are not reliant on the transmission infrastructure.

The Santa Clara Municipal Utility has indigenous generation, so it can serve its customers even during a PSPS. Most of the time though it sources greener energy from solar, wind and hydro, or accesses cheaper power on the market that is brought in by the transmission lines.

Palo Alto has chosen to rely on remote power, and our Council has (in my view imprudently) accepted the risk of extensive power outages, in order to avoid the expense and GHG emissions associated with reliability.

Likewise, Stanford University removed its cogeneration plant, which provide the campus with reliable electricity and the ability to continue operating despite transmission failures. Whatever the motivation (in my view, to pretend they were greening the campus energy supply) the result was to put the campus at risk of length power outages.

Homeowners and business will respond to this the way wealthy citizens do in other under-developed regions -- they will put in their own generators, with the attendant noise, pollution, electrocution and fire hazards.

You can blame PG&E, but they are regulated and spend money only as its authorized by the CPUC, whose commissioners are political appointees. Advocates of taking over the utility's functions will not change the facts on the ground -- they will just be re-arranging the deck chairs.

If we want reliable infrastructure and to reduce GHGs by electrification, we will need some political leadership to make it happen. Until then, grab a life vest.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 11, 2019 at 10:27 pm

I don't know how PG&E actually determined which areas to shut off, but the major obvious consideration is to deactivate power lines which are exposed to damage by wind action. These include both the local wires we see, for example, running along our roads, and the trunk transmission lines that deliver power from remote generator sites.

An example of the latter is the Caribou-Palermo line which fell last year and sparked the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise. Shutting down these big lines can deny power to areas remote from the hazard location if there is no alternate source, or combine of sources, that can supply their demand.

Another consideration is keeping the grid balanced and stable during the shutdowns to forestall damage to its components. Shutting down power is not an easy thing.

Unfortunately, PG&E followed the Reagan-era business model that prioritized financial returns and executive pay over maintenance and servicing customers. It worked very well for PG&E's CEOs. They retired wealthy. The little people are now paying for their party.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by pay up, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Oct 12, 2019 at 7:42 am

> Unfortunately, PG&E followed the Reagan-era business model that prioritized financial returns and executive pay over maintenance and servicing customers.

And now they should cease the above and use the money for the long-promised maintenance (clearing, burying lines, etc..)


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 12, 2019 at 10:25 am

>> Were these blackouts only to ensure the safety of people, as the company said? Or were they because this bankrupt and dysfunctional utility company decided to self-protect itself from another lawsuit?

"Lawsuit" or -save lives-? Since several people I know well had close calls in Oct 2017, and, I've seen the aftermath up close for 2017 and 2018, I'm inclined towards safety over inconvenience myself. I'm also inclined to pay more for utilities - gas and electric - to avoid incidents like the San Bruno inferno ($2.8B, 8 dead) as well as the blazes two years ago ($14.5B, 44 dead) and one year ago ($3.5B, 103 dead). (AFAIK, no exact partitioning of utility responsibility and total losses ever done except for San Bruno.)

Nobody ever wants to pay for utility maintenance. Now that we have tens of billions of dollars of damage, and 155 or so dead, can we agree on "maintenance first"? Probably not. :-(


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Totally reaganesque, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 14, 2019 at 8:54 am

"Nobody ever wants to pay for utility maintenance."

But we HAVE been paying. PG&e has been rolling that money up into their fiscal parent and distributing it out to shareholders, instead.

And for all that they got rewarded with the Trump tax cuts last year.

Yay.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Marc, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 14, 2019 at 8:55 am

When I grew up in NJ all the areas under and around power lines were clear cut down to grass level. What stops PG&E from clear cutting enough vegetation from their power lines so that no trees can come into contact with power lines? And if a power line falls it can't come into contact with substantial vegetation.

Isn't that simple and economical solution? Relocating power lines underground is expensive and time consuming.

/marc


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 14, 2019 at 1:51 pm

Posted by Totally reaganesque, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,

>> "Nobody ever wants to pay for utility maintenance."

>> But we HAVE been paying. PG&e has been rolling that money up into their fiscal parent and distributing it out to shareholders, instead.

I'm neither agreeing, nor, disagreeing. I don't pore over PG&E's public statements, so, can you point to somewhere that substantiates what you are saying? BTW, although I disagree with our current ROI concepts for giving public monopolies profits, I don't consider a former PG&E profit to be evidence. I want to see evidence that money designated for maintenance was actually misappropriated. Obviously, if that was the case, somebody(s) should go to prison for it.

Posted by Marc, a resident of Midtown,

>> What stops PG&E from clear cutting enough vegetation from their power lines so that no trees can come into contact with power lines? And if a power line falls it can't come into contact with substantial vegetation.

>> Isn't that simple and economical solution? Relocating power lines underground is expensive and time consuming.

Somewhere I read that PG&E only did 1/3 of the brush clearing they were supposed to do. I don't have a reference for that but would be happy to see it.

My point was only that if leaving the power on is unsafe, it needs to be shut down. Also, I think that people who -require- uninterruptible power need to provision it. There was an article about a tissue-culture experiment at UC Berkeley that was damaged to the tune of $650K by the outage. If true-- dumb. Power can go out for any number of reasons, and, UPS needs to be deployed in cases and places where an outage will cause major economic loss.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Totally reaganesque, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 14, 2019 at 4:15 pm

Really? You asked "I want to see evidence that money designated for maintenance was actually misappropriated" without even doing a search on the phrase you just typed?

google: "PG&E money designated for maintenance misappropriated"

As the *president would say: Sad!


They have great accountants to hide it, but some shows up: "Pacific Gas and Electric Co. diverted more than $100 million in gas safety and operations money collected from customers over a 15-year period and spent it for other purposes, including profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives, according to a pair of state-ordered reports released Thursday."





 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 15, 2019 at 10:09 am

Posted by Totally reaganesque, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,

>> Really? You asked "I want to see evidence that money designated for maintenance was actually misappropriated" without even doing a search on the phrase you just typed?

>> google: "PG&E money designated for maintenance misappropriated"

Google will find any old random rant from anyone making an unsubstantiated claim. It would be helpful if -you- included a link to the CPUC and/or NTSB regarding the pipeline incident, rather than tell me to use Google to substantiate -your- claims.

However, I should have stated more clearly that I was referring to power line right of way maintenance during the last decade. OBTW, news reports, while useful, are much more useful if they give references to the original documents, since most reporters are not very technical, nor are they expected to be-- it isn't their job. But, it is so easy to include a link to the original report.

==

Regardless, my real gripe is the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" mentality. IF we expect utilities to be more cautious about fires -- note that the Saddleback fire in SoCal -may- be due to SCE: Web Link ; THEN, please don't criticize the utilities for being cautious: Web Link

OBTW, clearly the regulated utility accounting that was practiced a decade ago is completely, totally flawed, because it did not incentivize safety, and, overly incentivizes cost cutting. I don't know if the accounting rules have changed or not. Anyone know?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by pg&e must pay up, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Oct 16, 2019 at 9:21 am

that post above was from the Chronicle

PG&E diverted safety money for profit, bonuses
Reports: Utility diverted safety funds into profit
Eric Nalder, Chronicle Staff Writer Published 4:00 am PST, Friday, January 13, 2012

"Pacific Gas and Electric Co. diverted more than $100 million in gas safety and operations money collected from customers over a 15-year period and spent it for other purposes, including profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives, according to a pair of state-ordered reports released Thursday."



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