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Pacific Gas and Electric shuts off power to thousands of customers

Gregg Edeson, PA Consulting utility reliability and resiliency lead, discusses the preventative power shut off to hundreds of thousands in California to avoid sparking a wildfire, and the technologies that utilities are using to more effectively select the which equipment to take offline.  

Read the full S&P Platts article here

The article notes that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. took the unprecedented action of shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to prevent its power lines from causing wildfires, leaving entire communities in northern California with unlit homes, businesses and streets, as well as useless appliances.

Beginning at 12 a.m. on Oct. 9, the PG&E Corp. subsidiary shut off power to more than 500,000 customers in 22 counties, including those in the North San Francisco Bay area because dry, hot and windy weather increased the potential that its power lines could set off wildfires. However, the PG&E utility delayed, until around noon, plans to cut power to an additional 230,000 customers in 10 additional counties and parts of Mendocino and Calaveras counties that didn't lose power earlier. A third phase of shutoffs was planned for another 40,000 customers in the southernmost portion of its service territory, including Santa Barbara and Kern counties.

The shutoffs were planned to affect 34 counties in northern and central California, and PG&E warned it might not be able to restore power for several days. Even after severe weather conditions subside, the utility's crews will have to patrol power lines and repair damaged equipment before it reenergizes its equipment. In most cases, the utility said it expects to restore power within 24 to 48 hours after emergency weather conditions pass but suggested customers prepare for multiple-day outages.

Moreover, the utility expects the hazardous conditions to continue through midday Oct. 10. Peak winds of up to 60 to 70 mph were expected at higher elevations during morning hours. The company opened a number of community centers, but multiple school closings were reported due to the outages. The centers were opened to provide restrooms, bottled water, air-conditioned seating, phone charging and updates for customers.

However, the utility's website was down for several hours during Oct. 10, making communication between the utility and its customers difficult. Moreover, customers with special medical needs also had their power cut. But the company said emergency facilities, such as hospitals, fire and police stations typically use backup generators to remain open.

Gregg said weather conditions are impacting all of California's major utilities, but PG&E has the most exposure because 34% of its service territory is in high fire hazard areas where more than 70,000 miles of overhead conductors are located.

He adds that wildfire exposure and utility disruptions will continue to be major problems for years to come. Over the next several years, PG&E and other utilities will refine their proactive approach to power outages to the point where eventually they can use more of a "scalpel" approach instead of de-energizing entire counties. Use of drones, high-resolution cameras and computer technology to evaluate equipment conditions and feeder circuit isolation schemes will enable utilities to more effectively choose what equipment to take offline.

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