California’s largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, has a huge wildfire problem. Five of the ten most destructive fires in California since 2015 have been linked to PG&E equipment, including the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the city of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Since then, PG&E has been reducing the risk of sparks in equipment by shutting off power in high fire risk areas during dry and windy weather. Call these public safety power outages, or PSPS events, and in 2019 they left nearly a million customers in the dark for seven days.
“Basically, we lost the entire week of service. We lost our entire food supply, we couldn’t operate, ”said Brennen Jensen, owner of the 100-year-old Hotel Charlotte in Groveland, California.
Keeping the power on for 16 million Californians is a big job, as is maintaining the integrity of more than 100,000 miles of power lines while staying clear of vegetation that could turn a spark into a deadly wildfire. All of this responding to California regulators and, as an investor-owned utility company, to shareholders.
“Company management primarily tried in the years leading up to Napa, Sonoma and Paradise to please shareholders by controlling costs,” said Michael Wara, director of the Energy and Climate Policy Program at Stanford University.
PG & E’s $ 5 billion 2021 Fire Mitigation Plan also includes 300 new weather stations to monitor severe conditions; LiDAR, drones and hundreds of cameras to provide 90% visual coverage of high fire risk areas; toughen the system by doing things like moving 37 miles of line near Paradise underground; and more aggressive logging around power lines.
It is also testing new technology. For example, PG&E has partnered with Grass Valley-based startup BoxPower to build solar-powered microgrids, housed in shipping containers, to provide safe power to customers in remote areas. The former serves as a full-time power source for five clients in the mountains of Briceburg, California. Until the remote grid was turned on in April, they had been living solely on generator power after a 5,000-acre fire destroyed their high-voltage line in 2019. PG&E aims to have 20 independent remote grids operational by 2022, with plans for several hundred more. .
PG&E partnered with BoxPower to build its first remote microgrid, which began providing 70-90% renewable energy to five customers in Briceburg, California, in April 2021.
“PG&E is trying everything it can think of because it knows it needs to repair its relationship with the state of California,” Wara said.
PG&E is also building a larger generator backup microgrids to activate during PSPS cuts. Groveland, where Jensen runs his hotel, was supposed to get one in October 2020. PG&E says it’s now delayed until the end of 2021.
“It is going to require a lot of quick and agile responses and a significant investment. And I hope PG&E is up to the challenge, ”Jensen said.
Watch the video to hear from more community members and to see five customer microgrid and other fire mitigation efforts that PG&E says are proof that it is committed to doing better to keep their power on and keep them safe.