Jul. 29—SANTA CRUZ — Concerned Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers on Thursday night tuned into a webinar that aimed to detail the utility company's efforts in wildfire prevention and response to frequent power outages in Santa Cruz County.
The presentation centered around the company's usage of Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings, which it says helps reduce wildfire ignitions during high-risk seasons, but has also resulted in more frequent and widespread power outages.
Staff also answered written questions from frustrated county residents wanting to learn more about ongoing efforts to reduce the burden customers feel from these frequent outages.
"We know that you've experienced multiple power outages recently," said PG&E Senior Manager Dave Meier, in the webinar's first words. "We want you to know, first and foremost, that this is unacceptable to us and we've taken immediate steps to mitigate future power outages."
When a fault occurs, often triggered by falling branches or surrounding wildlife, the system de-energizes the circuit within one-tenth of a second, before the line has an opportunity to interact with flammable objects. Dave Canny, the safety program's director, said it has produced promising results with an 80% reduction in reportable ignitions last year compared to the previous three-year average.
However, the Sentinel last week reported that Santa Cruz County has experienced 47 safety settings-related outages this year, through July 8 and 65 from July to December 2021.
"Why (would) these enhanced power line safety settings be turned on when it's foggy in the area, given that it's a wildfire reduction tool," wrote one viewer.
Canny explained that the complexity of the safety system prevents it from being "turned off and on like a light switch" and it will often remain active during foggy mornings that turn into warm and dry afternoons. He also said larger circuits may include varied geography, where it is foggy in one area and sunny in another.
"The combination of those two things can lead to the settings being enabled at a time when it certainly appears to be —and may actually be —lower wildfire risk," he said.
Meier, the senior local customer experience manager, said that the company is working to adjust the system's sensitivity settings to lower the frequency of triggers during low-risk periods. Other steps being taken in response to recent outages include the addition of fault indicators that help teams more rapidly identify outage locations, targeted vegetation management, insulation of overhead wires, establishment of bird guards and installation of sectionalizing devices that limit the number of impacted customers.
Canny also shared that the company is exploring an option that would temporarily move customers on a Ben Lomond circuit to a neighboring one less likely to be impacted by outages in the summer, a move he said could occur in the coming weeks.
Still, much of the sectionalizing work that would shrink the size of outage circuits is estimated to have impacts next year. "That's something we're looking very closely at that is likely to have more benefit in 2023," said Canny.
Meier also described a "self-identified vulnerable" program and other resources for customers with special medical needs. He encouraged those customers to call 800-743-5000 or visit pge.com/pspsresources.
The evening ended with a customer expressing gratitude for the safety measures, but concern for the company's seeming acceptance of regular power outages as fact of life in Santa Cruz.
"We're doing our best to make sure the impact of outages is much reduced compared to last year," said Teresa Alvarado, vice president of the South Bay and Central Coast regions. "But we're really balancing reliability with the reality that there are wildfires and PG&E is committed ... to making sure that we do not contribute to a new catastrophic wildfire."
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