Power costs

Without power, David Dewey has trouble sleeping.

The 66-year-old uses a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device to help him breathe through the night. The machine plugs into a wall, but during PG&E’s last intentional power outages in October, the semi-retired piano tuner was forced to leave his home to get some rest elsewhere.

“I needed my CPAP,” he told the CN&R. “After two nights without it, I was not getting the sleep I need.”

PG&E’s more frequent “public safety power shutoff” events—when it cuts power during high-fire-risk conditions—has led Dewey to look into purchasing and installing a standby generator to juice his 1,100-square-foot home off Forbestown Road above Lake Oroville. In addition to operating his CPAP device, Dewey needs electricity to pump his well, heat his home and run his refrigerator.

But the associated costs will be a burden, Dewey said, estimating that a generator, installation costs and what he described as an exorbitant county permit fee could ultimately exceed $10,000. That’s before maintenance costs are factored in.

“It’s an expense I did not plan for in my budget,” he said, noting that he will have to borrow against his home’s value to afford the project. “Of course, I’m realizing, ‘OK, time to rethink the budget.’”

Even so, Dewey questions the county’s permit fee associated with installing a permanent generator—a fee that can exceed $600. That’s more than double what the town of Paradise charges, which is about $240. Dewey said the county fee appears too high for its inspection work, and he wonders whether people are forgoing the cost, hooking up generators without oversight and possibly adding to the fire danger in the foothills.

“The county wants people to get permits, but then they price them to the point where people don’t want to pay it—so they avoid the permits,” he said. “So, you’re kind of in a Catch-22 situation.”

County officials say they have seen a significant increase in generator permits issued over the last year, coinciding with PG&E’s more frequent power shut-offs since the Camp Fire. Eighty-five permits for permanent generators have been issued in the past 12 months. Twelve were issued the year before.

Curtis Johnson, the county’s building division manager, said the roughly $600 permit fee covers a few things, including reviewing plans for consistency with codes, issuing corrections and conducting inspections—usually two for each project. It also takes into account the larger geographic area under the county’s jurisdiction to conduct inspections. (Permits for temporary generators that utilize a transfer switch run about $300. Portable generators that aren’t hooked into a home’s wiring do not require a permit.) The county, Johnson said, had been issuing many safety-related corrections earlier in the year. Now, contractors have become more experienced with the county’s requirements and can more easily get a plan approved.

Johnson said he was not aware of people forgoing permits and installing generators, but added that it likely is happening.

“We’re trying to educate people,” he said. “Trying to let them know that we’re not just trying to collect the fee. We’re actually trying to make sure that they’re safe, and that’s our main purpose.”

Tim Snellings, director of the county’s Department of Development Services, says his department is interested in exploring ways to lower the fee. He said officials have thought about consolidating its two inspections—for fuel and electricity—into one by discussing the issue and coordinating with the local contractor community. He also said other avenues could be explored as well, such as grant funding.

“We are open to people’s ideas on how to make this program efficient,” Snellings said, “as well as protecting public safety.”

The uptick in generator use in the county comes as PG&E has said intentional power shut-offs will occur over the next decade as the utility improves its infrastructure. The Paradise Town Council on Tuesday (Nov. 12) voted unanimously to support Assemblyman James Gallagher’s office as it works on legislation to speed up that process.

Gallagher’s proposed legislation, which one of his representatives said was not yet drafted, would “temporarily pause the state’s renewable power mandates until infrastructure and vegetation management conditions are improved,” according to a joint press release issued by Gallagher and Sen. Jim Nielsen, who also is involved with creating the bill. PG&E, according to the release, spends about $2.4 billion annually to “uphold a legislative mandate to buy renewable power.”

“PSPSes suck,” Councilwoman Melissa Schuster said. “I hate to see what has happened to our economy statewide because of these shut-offs. It’s just incredible.”

Schuster said she was open to working with Gallagher’s office, but she added the legislation as presented appears to give PG&E an out by placing blame on a mandate for researching renewable energy.

“PG&E doesn’t deserve a bye, nor [to] be provided an excuse for being irresponsible,” she said. “And this is not an either/or situation. PG&E did not neglect their infrastructure because they were mandated to research renewable energy. They made a choice. They made a choice to pay dividends and executive bonuses rather than spending money on hardening their infrastructure.”

Mayor Jody Jones said while she doesn’t view Gallagher’s proposal as a pass for PG&E, she agreed that the utility did not take proper care of its infrastructure.

“Our power’s getting shut off all the time, and they’re saying it’s going to take 10 years and I believe that,” Jones said. “There is so much maintenance to do that it can’t be done tomorrow.”

The mayor added that she views the proposal as additional money for PG&E to improve its infrastructure, so perhaps the utility could expedite its work.