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October 23, 2021

Officials, Valley residents ask for answers from utility after outages

On Sept. 20, Congress member Anna Eshoo took up the cause of local residents frustrated by frequent power outages, demanding answers about why PG&E’s grid has been so undependable.

In a letter to the utility’s CEO Patricia Poppe, Eshoo said Santa Cruz Mountains residents are “rightly frustrated” about the region’s decreasing reliability of electrical service.

“While I appreciate the utility’s long-overdue attention to wildfire prevention, safety need not necessarily come at the expense of reliability,” she said. “PG&E has failed to provide an adequate explanation to ratepayers whom the utility has left in the dark.”

Eshoo has been pushing President Joe Biden’s $4.7 trillion-worth of initiatives that would, in part, increase reliance on electricity companies, as the U.S. struggles to wean itself off climate change-causing fossil fuels.

She was in Los Gatos on Sept. 18 as officials announced $7 million in state funding for wildfire preparedness in Silicon Valley.

Blackouts in mountain communities such as Felton, Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Montevina Road and Brookdale have followed on the heels of Public Safety Power Shutoffs and rolling blackouts, Eshoo wrote to the CEO, questioning the extent to which increased sensitivity of fault-sensing equipment really is to blame for the intermittent delivery of electrical current.

“Unexpected and days-long outages are more than an inconvenience,” she said. “They pose their own health and safety risks, particularly for the elderly and those living in more isolated areas.”

Weeks after customers protested recent PG&E power outages on Sept. 9 at its headquarters, the company announced it would hold webinars for Corralitos and Watsonville area customers, and Santa Clara County and San Lorenzo Valley customers on Sept. 23.

Eshoo inquired about where PG&E has recently installed new safety equipment, how many people in Santa Cruz County were affected, if the company has looked at other ways to reduce wildfire risk and about what it’s doing to improve outreach to customers.

“PG&E has an obligation to protect the safety of its ratepayers and to provide them with reliable electricity,” she said. “Exchanging the latter for the former is not an acceptable tradeoff in the long term.”

Eshoo said the problems with PG&E underline how important it is to address climate change since dry forests are more likely to ignite when old power equipment breaks down and sends sparks flying.

“That’s why the undergrounding of utilities is so important,” she said, touting the provisions in proposed Democratic legislation. “There’s not one single silver bullet in this; you have to address it with a multiplicity of approaches—and the funding reflects that.”

While she says she gets that PG&E would want to play it safe after being accused of causing multiple devastating wildfires in California, Eshoo says she does not understand why mountain residents have had to deal with as many power outages as they have.

“My constituents in the Santa Cruz portion of the district are suffering under the continuing loss of electricity,” she said. “This is affecting their lives, and I don’t have a clear answer for it.”

In a recent press release, PG&E said its new public safety measures—including the upped sensitivity of equipment—have led to a 50% decrease in potential fire ignitions.

“As California’s wildfire risk continues to grow, PG&E is committed to implementing new safety measures to mitigate catastrophic wildfires,” said Marlene Santos, PG&E’s executive vice president and chief customer officer. “These updated settings have already significantly reduced wildfire risk for customers in high fire-threat areas.”

While the focus on fire mitigation was well-intentioned, the outages have wreaked havoc on residents, businesses and students. Beginning at the tail end of the Labor Day weekend, residents from Boulder Creek to Felton saw their power go out multiple times over the course of 10 days. Food from refrigerators and freezers was tossed in the trash, noise and air pollution blanketed neighborhoods, and those with medical conditions requiring access to electricity were left to muddle through—risking their health along the way.

According to PG&E, its new “fast trip” technology is designed to “quickly and automatically turn off power if an object strikes a line or there is an issue with the equipment.” Unfortunately for residents on shared grids, the shutoff affects an entire circuit, resulting in hundreds of customers losing power for hours on end, with no clear message as to when the electricity will be restored.

Santa Cruz Mountains resident John Sidwell decided he’d had enough and found a way to connect with Don Hall, PG&E’s regional director for Energy Solutions and Service. That conversation, says Sidwell, was an important first step in sharing the frustration locals feel over their powerlessness with the utility.

During Sidwell’s 45-minute conversation with the PG&E rep, he lamented the fact that areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains had been without power for more than 200 hours since the beginning of the year. These are not small bumps in the road when it comes to managing life or working from home—that aggregate amount of time without electricity can have real consequences, he says. Residents who are still working from home due to the pandemic have found stress and frustration with the new system, especially since a power outage goes hand-in-hand with a loss of internet access.

As a result of the objections being voiced in the community, 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson agreed to participate in the PG&E forums for residents and posted this statement on his Facebook page: “The outages experienced … are a function of the new electrical circuit protection systems that will help prevent possible utility generated wildfires. However, PG&E is still refining how sensitive this system is, what climate conditions the protection system is implemented under, and how to re-energize the network more quickly. By the experiences of residents in Santa Cruz County and particularly the San Lorenzo Valley this weekend we need to work more closely with PG&E to get this right, and make sure that safety improvements don’t lead to excessive or prolonged outages unnecessarily.”

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