Can PG&E limit outages?

Utility giant works on wildfire protections as businesses battered by the pandemic lockdown brace for further losses from safety-geared power shut-offs

PG&E-contracted crews from Mountain Enterprises trim trees near power lines in the foothills east of Sacramento. (Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson)

While economists are trying to determine just how stark the new COVID-19 reality is for mom-and-pop businesses, a recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggests the situation hasn’t hit rock bottom: Forty-three percent of small business owners said they are three to six months away from shutting their doors forever.

The irony for many Golden State businesses—especially those in the foothill regions—is that they spent 2019 adjusting to a different reality: Widespread and repeated power outages intentionally triggered by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to stop its equipment from sparking wildfires.

Businesses in Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer and Yolo counties collectively lost millions of dollars during days in the dark. Shops and restaurants across the patchwork of Delta counties were impacted, too.

The financial losses from PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program came from businesses closing up for a few days, several times between June and November. The economic havoc from California’s months-long stay-at-home order has been far greater and, for some longtime storefronts, permanent.

Now, as community entrepreneurs adjust to the guidelines for “a new normal” as they reopen, some wonder if having the lights turned out this summer will be the final straw.

PG&E has spent months implementing a new plan designed to limit the size, scope and frequency of power shut-offs. The company’s strategy relies on a combination of technological innovations and old-fashioned boots on the ground. But business owners from Pollock Pines to Lake Berryessa are still wondering, “Will it be enough?”

From one unimaginable blow to another

PG&E created the PSPS program after facing a torrent of lawsuits over wildfires its faulty equipment caused in 2017 and 2018, including the devastating Camp Fire. In those disasters, the utility has been implicated in at least 107 deaths—85 from the Camp Fire alone—and more than 20,000 lost structures.

The California Public Utilities Commission granted PG&E permission to use power shut-offs to protect communities when extreme weather conditions presented risks for fire, though its commissioners later suggested they were stunned by the scale at which PG&E shut down vast sections of California’s infrastructure.

Some small-business owners threatened to move out of the state. Others told reporters they simply couldn’t keep the doors open if the outages continued. One place where businesses went dark was Solano County, including its enclaves along the Delta.

But Bill Wells, executive director of the California Delta Chambers and Visitor’s Bureau, says what businesses have recently faced from the COVID-19 lockdown is far worse than last year’s troubles with PG&E.

“It’s been a complete catastrophe,” Wells said. “At this point, I’m really worried some of these places will never come back.”

That sentiment is shared in other valley communities. In late April, hundreds of business owners in Roseville, Rocklin, Lincoln, Loomis and Granite Bay signed a petition to Placer County supervisors asking to reopen with new safety guidelines. In the petition, many reported a 70 percent to 80 percent loss in sales since being forced to close. Some of those same businesses lost revenue to last year’s power shut-offs, but not nearly as much and there was never a petition.

“I think the petition gives you a sense of what a struggle it has been,” said Tom Indrieri, executive director of the Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce.

Business leaders in El Dorado County also draw a sharp distinction between the power shut-offs and the coronavirus lockdown. El Dorado was among the counties to be widely impacted by PG&E’s first power shut-off in late 2018. Its businesses have been affected by nearly every outage since.

Laurel Brent-Bumb, CEO of the county’s chamber of commerce, says as difficult as the PG&E outages were, the unprecedented lockdown has become the main existential threat to business owners. Some, she added, don’t even have the mental bandwidth to worry about what PG&E might do this summer.

“Sixty percent of our businesses in the county have five or fewer employees,” Brent-Bumb said. “Not all of them were able to work through what’s been going on, and not all of them were able to apply for the Payroll Protection Program. For many, there’s been a real struggle to survive.”

Safeguards in the works

Despite a chorus of calls for PG&E to be converted to a public, nonprofit energy provider, the shareholder-owned corporation is expected to emerge from bankruptcy this year. Among the state’s many requirements for that to happen is for PG&E to have a plan to safeguard communities without simply shutting power off on windy days. The utility has spent months trying to change the fire threat dynamics around its power grid.

One of the 18,000 structures destroyed by the Camp Fire, as pictured three days after the blaze ignited on Nov. 8, 2018. (Photo by Melissa Daugherty)

One of PG&E’s main tactics to reduce the scope of shut-offs is installing sectionalizing devices to break up the grid into smaller parts and allow for targeting of smaller areas for de-energization. PG&E is now working to install 21 sectionalizing devices in El Dorado County, 20 in Placer County, 14 in Nevada County, 11 in Yolo County, eight in Amador County and four in Butte County.

Another element of its strategy involves advanced weather stations, which PG&E says will allow it to better understand dry, windy conditions unfolding around its equipment in real time. The company faced vehement criticism last year for shutting off power to communities that experienced little to no wind. PG&E is in the process of installing 33 advanced weather stations in Butte County, 30 in El Dorado County, 16 in Amador County, 15 in Nevada County, 5 in Placer County and one in Yolo County.

Meanwhile, PG&E has deployed platoons of tree-trimmers along its power lines. These workers cut away vegetation that could be hurled into the lines by a windstorm. The company says it’s on track to complete this work on 212 line-miles in Butte County.

Finally, PG&E has installed micro energy grids to keep the central core of some cities and towns operational during a safety shut-off. To date, it’s installed microgrids for Placerville and Grass Valley, and is currently working to install two more for Georgetown and Pollock Pines.

In a recent statement, PG&E Vice President Michael Lewis stressed that the “hardening” of the company’s grid will make future power shut-offs “smaller and shorter.”

But for small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy because of the COVID-19 lockdown, outages this summer could mean the difference between making the rent or closing up for good.

Running Lincoln’s chamber of commerce through the pandemic has given Indrieri some hope that South Placer County will cope with wildfire season because of a renewed commitment from residents to shop local.

“The citizens have really rallied behind our businesses,” he said. “In Lincoln, the one place that said it was going to have to close now thinks it can stay open.”

Brent-Bumb has noticed a similar sense of solidarity in El Dorado County, though she hopes it will last, since small businesses will be dealing with the financial fallout from the lockdown for a long time to come. She is also staying hopeful that PG&E’s recent work will be enough to prevent the year of the coronavirus from also being remembered as another summer of power shut-offs.

“We can condemn people for past sins,” she said, “but we can also be thankful for what they’re doing now.”

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