Power Outage: “Public Safety Power Shutoff”

Power outage would affect transmission lines through Briones Reservoir, seen along hilltops in Martinez, CA..

PG&E has rolled out a plan for 2019’s fire season, called a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” (“PSPS”).  The PSPS is a plan to shut off large sections of the electric grid to prevent fire.  These plans purposely create the potential for a power outage for millions of customers.

Many electric customers in PG&E territory have come to expect only momentary power outages, unless they are near the point of failure.  Even then, they rely on the Utility not to keep power off longer than it takes to make quick repairs.

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoff changes that.

Distribution lines are local utility poles and underground lines that feed a neighborhood. The electric lines are at the top of the pole.

PG&E and other utilities have shut down distribution lines (utility poles) in high fire danger areas, in the past.  They deliberately kept such a power outage limited and as local as possible.

To shut the power off for public safety, means deliberately causing blackouts based on the weather forecast.  It means keeping the power off until the weather has improved and the lines pass inspection.   These are literally “far-reaching” changes.

What if your power passes through such a high fire danger area, far away from you?

A PSPS is not only a planned outage, not caused by a failure or accident, but it is also one that may affect areas that are far distant from the problem. In this case, the past is not a good predictor of what to expect, as power may be off for areas that are not located in an extreme fire danger area.

How much should we worry?

Some of you are not worried enough. You need to be worried enough to get prepared for power outages that are longer than you’re used to.

But, let’s not get hysterical; let’s just be ready.

My insurance company hasn’t raised my fire insurance rates, so I know they aren’t worried.  They know my home isn’t in a wildfire area, but whether they still think I’m as safe after a multi-day power outage, is yet to be seen.

Living through a power outage is something our neighbors in other states do from time to time after hurricanes, blizzards, and tornadoes.

But I really wanted to figure out the odds of it happening to me, because those outages are not done on purpose, like these may be. And I, for one, am not yet ready for one lasting, at minimum, three days and nights in a row.

Why it’s important

Picture the consequences of a multi-day power outage that range from a “LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE” scenario to one that resembles “MAD MAX.”

In fact, the potential consequences from an extended outage make it harder for me to rule out there being an element of political theater in the plan. Because it seems way too risky unless your goal really is to rattle a few cages.

It sounds expensive, too, because of lost sales and other taxed economic activity. Will we suffer power outages on a seasonal basis annually? Or will they change their minds or come up with another plan?

Maybe the idea is to cancel it after getting a political result.

I thought they might do it once or twice.

I’m already wrong

Guess what?  Did you know that the Utility companies have already caused power to be shut down in various parts of the state?  Power outages of three to seven days are already routine in the San Diego area. People there complained bitterly and that didn’t stop the preemptive blackouts.

Power to hospitals, traffic signals, grocery stores, elevators, TV and wi-fi, all shut down on purpose? Really?  Since I started writing this post, they’ve already had a two day outage in the Stockton area and a PSPS in Napa and Sonoma Counties. Fire season is early.

Yes, the hospitals are working on getting fuel for their generators. Contra Costa Water District fills hilltop tanks with water using electricity, but they deliver it using gravity.  Jennifer Allen, Director of Public Affairs for the CCWD, told me that it’s always a good idea to have an back-up water supply.  Their preparations are still in progress.

The odds of a PSPS depend on why

I thought PG&E was smart to file for Chapter 11 when they did. Much better to function under a judge than a political process, given their “deep pockets” status, and the avalanche of lawsuits following the wildfires. A bankruptcy judge is bound to be careful to balance the needs of the parties. So, maybe this is a similar type of move.

I can see advantages to PG&E; they do need to show how serious they are about safety.

PG&E is a concept and a legal entity, not a person, so when I refer to “them” I remind myself “they” don’t really exist. I have a high regard for the actual PG&E employees I’ve met. Also, PG&E has a reputation in the solar industry as being among the very best to deal with when installing solar.

I was totally speculating on what the motives might be for deliberately causing increased risks, and imposing certain costs and inconvenience to thousands or millions.  There are other ways those relatively few who live in wildfire susceptible areas can protect themselves, without imposing risks and costs on others. This is especially true now that we’ve relearned the old lessons about fires and evacuations.  It is hard to believe that this is the best solution.

Then someone told me a judge ordered them to do this, but I haven’t confirmed that.

It’s not just PG&E

When I found out that PG&E is not the only one in this program, I knew that meant the CPUC and others at the state level are involved. There are plenty of other vested interests, not the least of which are those of us who use electricity and don’t want fires.

Maybe some of those involved want to create voter support for a new law that says that hot, dry, windy weather, and years of drought and dry brush, are all acts of God, and not the utility’s responsibility.

At any rate, there are lots of people, including the insurance companies and the rate-payers, who have fingers in this political pie. One of the problems of decisions reached by multiple parties, is knowing what the motives really are.

Oh, well.

The only reason their thinking matters, is that it may shed light on the chances it will happen.  After more thought and research, I can only go by what they say, now, and do, later.  But I no longer believe it won’t happen at all, or happen just once, simply because it seems a bit crazy. Fingers crossed it doesn’t happen to me, but I”m now convinced it will happen to many of us.

Click above to see full PG&E FAQ page
Power outage would affect these transmission lines through Briones Reservoir, seen along hilltops in Martinez, CA..
Transmission Lines seen from the Martinez Marina.
Photo credit: Tristan Morrow

The odds of a PSPS depend on where

Let’s assume the Public Safety Power Shutoff is the new reality, at least for a while, and that it will happen to some people. Let’s also assume that sometime each year, the weather will be hot, dry, and windy. The next calculation is, what are the odds such a power outage will affect my geographic location?

Don’t think this planned power shutoff can’t affect you because you live in an urban or suburban area, and not in the wild.

Neither electric power outages nor wildfires have ever been a problem for me.

I live near sea level by the I-680/Highway 4 interchange in the San Francisco Bay Area (Pacheco, CA).  Homeowners have landscaping around their homes.  There are a few big (living) trees here and there, and not many places nearby with enough fuel for a fire to get big.  Most are irrigated areas without dry underbrush for fuel.

Basically, every street, sidewalk, and front yard, together, form firebreaks.  The occasional grass fires happen in a vacant lot or nearby hillside; they don’t catch the neighborhood on fire.  The freeway and the highway and other boulevards form even bigger fire breaks.

I do not live in danger of wildfires—but what if my power lines do?

However, in the past, PG&E’s goal has been to keep the power on.  Their customers need electricity, so they designed the system to route power around any problem, such as a downed power line.  They automated much of such rerouting, so it was quick.

They’ve changed their priorities to prevent fire outside my area.

Transmission Lines

Click above for PG&E PSPS Fact Sheet

Transmission lines are the high voltage wires that are on towers. Those that pass through wildfire danger areas are subject to a preemptive shut off.  These long-distance lines are high above most trees, but apparently can spark fires in high winds.

Martinez, CA transmission line

Since all the wires are on the same line of towers, passing through the same areas, a PSPS would turn off the whole line.  It’s a long line, too. Whereas, in a normal failure involving one wire (cable?), I assume they route power through the remaining wires.

If the goal becomes to keep the power off in a high fire danger area, then, like your extension cord full of wires, unplugging it turns off electricity through the whole line of towers from end to end.  There is no power in the line.

I’m no lineman, so I’m going to call the connected towers “the line.”  The cables or wires upon them are probably “lines” also.  I know there are many PG&E employees in my neighborhood.  I invite them to comment and contribute, below.  Please correct me if I’m wrong!

Update 7/12/19: I attended the PG&E open house last night and questioned several people there. See more clarification, below.

Secret or just unknown?

When I called PG&E to ask about the loss of transmission lines, and whether mine pass through high wildfire danger areas, I discovered they really don’t talk about it. It totally makes sense, for security reasons, not to publish maps of them, so I didn’t waste much time looking online.

I wanted to get some sense of the likelihood of it happening.  How do long-distance transmission lines change the equation?  You can use Google Maps (satellite view) to follow lines, but the fire danger maps don’t show them.

At PG&E’s press office’s request, I sent them a bunch of basic general questions. But the press office couldn’t answer them.  Either I’m among the first to ask them, or they don’t want to answer these particular questions. 

For example, do they consider all transmission lines to be equally dangerous in high winds and similar conditions? And I asked to know what is the smallest area they can shut down at a time, because I want to know how targeted they can be.

After asking for my questions, they responded with an invitation to an open house later this year to ask them in person.

Substations Update from PG&E Open House

Power Lines through Rio Vista, Solano County

7-12-19 in Walnut Creek — Apparently, long-distance transmission lines hop from substation to substation, and power can be stopped at the substation level. Thus, the “extension cord” can be ended at one of them, in order to prevent power going through the remainder of the line if it passes through a danger area.

So, if you get your power before that line reaches the next substation after the fire-danger area, you may be in luck. Your odds may be reduced because you only have to worry about stoppages between you and where the power is generated, and not be impacted by fire danger areas further down the line. They can be cut off at yours or a subsequent substation, after you’ve gotten your power.

Further, a substation can get input from more than one direction or source, meaning that only half the electrical customers fed by that substation might be cut off, if something happened to only one of the two power sources. Unfortunately, even if you knew that to be true of your substation, because the power is fed via (I believe) hard wiring, and not switchable, it might be a coin-toss as to whether yours is the one that stays on, or shuts off.

To better calculate your odds, you would have to consult a map identifying which substation feeds your house, whether any of the distribution lines into it go through one of the danger areas before they get to it, and if any of them do, whether it is the one that distributes power to your street.

This is where knowing the right person at PG&E would come in handy. I don’t think they have the bandwidth to answer this question for each household and I doubt these maps are public.

Power Distribution Lines – closer to the ground

Distribution grids comprised of local utility poles, underground lines, and substations, connect to neighboring distribution grids.  So, just because the long distance transmission lines might be down, doesn’t necessarily mean the power will fail, locally.

Update: the more substations in the Bay Area that have more than one transmission source, the better the odds that power will be out in a patchwork. While still massively inconvenient if you have no power, you may have a shorter distance to travel, and a shorter line when you get there, to get gasoline or groceries at an operating store.

More good news

The Utility has power inputs from gas or coal generation, wind farms, solar farms, and traditional sources, which can travel through the local patchwork of power poles and substations, even without the long-distance transmission lines.

Bad News

Local distribution lines are the ones that get hit with tree limbs or preemptively shut down in high fire-danger areas.  Households in those areas are used to it.

But if they are part of the distribution grid tasked with keeping us in power when the transmission lines are off, any failure or shut-down could put a hole in that plan.  A power outage that once would have been local could now affect more people without transmission line support.

Regardless, demand for power will be high, given the heat during such a weather event.  How to route power around these outages will be tricky, if not impossible. And distance makes electricity expensive, in more ways than one.

Rooftop solar contributes electric power to the grid, also, but almost all of these systems automatically shut down when the grid does, so that we don’t electrocute the linemen doing repairs. They weren’t designed for planned multi-day power outages where no repairs were being made, anyway.  However, new technology that allows rooftop systems to stay on is arriving now. Please contact me if you want more information.

Which transmission lines will they shut down?

PG&E says that lines that pass through a Tier 2 (“Elevated”) or Tier 3 (“Extreme”) fire danger area, based on the amount of fuel in the form of dead trees, trees, grass, and other factors, like terrain, are “likely” to be shut down.

The same areas that we enjoy as parks, open space, or private property, when it’s raining, cool, and still, become fuels waiting for a spark.  It’s only during fire season with hot, dry, windy weather, that these become a big enough danger to prompt a Public Safety Power Shutoff.

Map of California Fire Danger

Here’s a portion of the California Public Utility Commission’s map of the Diablo Valley and parts of Contra Costa County and Alameda County in San Francisco’s East Bay.

You can view this for the whole state of California by clicking the map.

That red blotch in the middle is in Briones Regional Park, largely uninhabited by people, consisting of grass, trees, and brushy hills.  (CA-24 from Berkeley and Orinda through Lafayette to Walnut Creek meets the I-680 corridor from Concord, south through Pleasant Hill, in Walnut Creek. That’s Highway 4 (John Muir Parkway) along the top.)

Now, here’s the same map, with Tier 2 “elevated” fire danger overlaid.  Both “Elevated” and “Extreme” areas qualify to trigger a power outage.

Tier 3 “extreme” and Tier 2 “elevated” are both reasons to shut off power in a PSPS.

Where Does Your Electricity Come From…and where does it go?

How does electricity get through to Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek, Martinez, and Lafayette, without going through a Tier 2 “Elevated” or Tier 3 “Extreme” area?  High fuel areas practically surround them.

If the transmission line causes a PSPS to be called, it will be because it passes through a fire danger area down line, up line, nearby, or far-away near some hydroelectric dam in the Sierras.  Unless they can route power around the Tier 2 or Tier 3 area, they will turn the electricity off.

This was another question I had for PG&E. I assume transmission lines fan out from power sources like spokes in a wheel.  Even if they do connect with each other, I don’t imagine it happens very many places, making it hard to switch to power from a source where the weather isn’t so hot or windy or has less fuel. That puts the burden of re-routing power on the local distribution lines.

Update: the transmission lines do connect at substations, but only add an on-off switch. They don’t allow re-routing. It’s the luck of the draw whether your power comes from a line that is safe to keep on.

Maybe I need a specific example

In a power outage, could this transmission line be shut down?

The nearest transmission lines to me run across Highway 4, behind Glacier Drive, through Hidden Lakes Park, across Alhambra Avenue, and into that first Tier 3 red blotch on the map, in Briones Regional Park. I didn’t follow it further, but guess it goes to the red blotch that is Berkeley and the East Bay hills.

Using the above example, I tried to find out if the distribution grid would be able to continue functioning and supplying power, if the transmission lines had to be shut down. It would have to have a connection to a supply, and the supply would have to be big enough.

PG&E and other utilities don’t like to publish maps of their infrastructure.  Even the PG&E press office couldn’t tell me anything about where the electricity bottlenecks were likely to occur, such as the one in my example. In July, I’m going to one of their open house events and see if I can pin that down.

I did find out more at the open house. If you live in Martinez, Concord, or Pleasant Hill areas, I’ve posted more details.

Batteries and Solar to the Rescue? Not necessarily.

New options are becoming available for those wishing to remain online during a PSPS or other type of outage.

Very few people have installed them, yet, however.

Until now, most solar owners have not purchased batteries, because power outages normally don’t happen to them for months, or even years in a row. And when they do, they don’t last for more than a few seconds or minutes.  Most demand for off-grid functioning came from customers in the boondocks, away from civilization.

Instead, for solar customers in highly populated areas, the Utility would “store” (sell to your neighbors) your extra power during the day, and give you credit back to purchase electricity at night. This puts more households in the category of households who can save money by paying less to the Utility, and produce their own.

Until the PSPS plan came along, this worked great, because PG&E allows their rooftop solar customers to apply their long summer day extra production to their purchases of electricity in the short days of winter, as well as at night.

That meant that PV system owners sized their systems to their needs on an average day.

But to function without the grid, a solar homeowner would have to size their system for the shortest, and possibly cloudy, day of the year, instead, with batteries for the longest night. And that costs a bit more for something they would rarely need.

Power outage experience elsewhere

I consulted a solar professional who lives in San Diego and has already been through several of these PSPS’s (minimum outage was 3 days, longest was 7).  His rooftop solar has battery back-up.

His company manufactures a device that allows a solar home to remain on during power-outages.  It creates a “mini-grid” or grid within the house so important things, like the refrigerator can stay on while the sun is shining.  Together with batteries, it can operate through the night, too.  More batteries, more things on.

In San Diego, there is so much rooftop solar, they sometimes “turn off” long-distance transmission lines because they don’t need them.  Other times, they “reverse direction” to export electricity out of state! But that’s only during the day, with a local distribution grid that’s working, not shut off.

My brother points out that AC current goes both ways, and what they really mean is that customers may mostly be using or generating electricity from one end or the other. Power doesn’t flow like water does. (I knew that; Dad was an electrical engineer and explained electricity to me as a child, but I try not to get too technical.)

No wonder PG&E doesn’t want to get specific

In my area, some neighbors have underground electric lines, but a block or two away, there are areas of poles and trees, and much more fuel.  How much time will the utility have, to pick and choose and isolate, local PSPS outages?  Will they be able to go around the danger areas?

I read they are taking steps to prevent the system from automatically skirting areas that are out; otherwise the system would restore power, as soon as they shut it off. It’s easy to see why they want all 5 million of their customers to be ready for anything.

I don’t think they know who will be affected, but I was hoping they would give odds. No luck.

Disruptions in manufacturing caused by tariffs, and by State of California regulatory changes have delayed some off-grid battery back-up options.  Contact me for availability.

Local Sources of Electric Generation

I’m not aware of any generating facilities within the bowl that is Diablo Valley, either. The wind farms are further inland in the passes out of our valley. If we do have local generation, I doubt it’s adequate in a densely populated area like ours.

There are two generating plants along the shore in the Pittsburg/Antioch area. Some of their power is transmitted over Mt. Diablo foothills, and some follow the river/delta coastline.

This Tehachapi wind farm may be too far away to help us in a power outage.

The terrain may cause some electricity bottlenecks, and there may not be enough power getting through for everyone. Mt. Diablo, the Sacramento Delta, and Altamont Pass channel the wind and probably the transmission lines, through areas where the local grids are sparse due to low population and open spaces.

So, even though I understand that long-distance transmission lines may or may not be in use at any given time, I’m not confident that the local grid will be able to work around outages and/or provide enough power, without that supplied by transmission lines.

Figuring out even a general idea of the odds of a power outage, is complicated.

Can you calculate your odds of a power outage?

What are the odds of having a PSPS?

The odds of hot, dry, windy weather are virtually certain.

If the weather is forecast to be hot, dry, and windy in Briones, or a similar area near your transmission line, it is the type “most likely” to be among those considered for a PSPS.

These power lines cross into Contra Costa from the north.

I have no idea where that line goes in either direction.  All the way to the Sierra foothills?  Does it supply Berkeley?  Orinda?  Moraga? Does it end at the Bay?  Or go up or down the coast?  Cross to San Francisco?

If it’s shut down, will the little bitty distribution lines along Alhambra Valley be able to supply these other areas, some of which are also Tier 1 or Tier 2?

Are there other places on the line, besides the local one I described, that are rated as Tier 2 or Tier 3 for fire danger?  Probably.

Fuel-covered hills surround the valley

The Diablo Valley is surrounded by areas of high fuel. Look at the map of high fuel “Elevated” Tier 1 and “Extreme” Tier 2 areas around your lines.  If both you and your power sources are distant from these areas, you’ll be fine, we hope.

Otherwise, you’ll be fine if you prepare for power shutoffs.

In the past, “Nature” caused outages in the form of wind and tree limbs.  Those will still happen, but now a highly regulated utility will also cause power outages based on a weather forecast, that fuel map, and what they think is best.

When the wind dies down, it’s not over

Normally, in the past, one power failure at a time would be isolated and the neighbors restored automatically.  Then somebody would inspect the area of the outage and fix it.

But they can’t just turn the power back on when the wind dies down.  That would potentially be like shooting fireworks into a grassy field to see if the grass is too dry.   Instead of failures starting random fires at different times, it might start them all at once.

Everything will have to be inspected and turned on sequentially.

PG&E employees and contractors will be working very hard, both during and after a PSPS.

Days in a Row Without Power

As my San Diego contact stated, their Public Safety Power Shutoffs have lasted between three and seven days in a row.

Unless you come from tornado or hurricane country, or the Sierra foothills, somewhere, you are not prepared for multi-day outages.

Why prepare for a power outage now?

I earn my living by helping people go solar, and I hope that some of you will let me hook you up with a great installer and system. I enjoy writing, and using my imagination, and the blog is how I reach people.

But, imagination also helps preparation.

I’ve written dozens of screenplays in the past several decades, including one involving a monetary collapse, where there is no money.  The first draft was written long ago, after an economics class I took at St. Mary’s College of Moraga.

No one had solar, when I wrote it. We were completely dependent on the grid. ATM’s had recently been invented, but cash was still king. In my story, it wasn’t the electricity that went bad, it was the currency.

In a monetary collapse, paying or being paid requires bartering products and services.  Instead of “going solar” my characters had to “go outhouse” and “go water well” because large collective systems, like utilities, were the first to fail.  There was no way to pay for them.

I don’t want to live that type of movie.  Compared to a monetary collapse, a week without electricity at home is easy. But you may have to go without ATM’s and credit cards, too, though locally, and for a shorter time.

Early Warning for a power outage

PG&E says they’ll try to give us 48 hour notice before a power outage. We should also watch the weather forecasts. However, I’m betting plenty of people will be caught unprepared for an unknown length of time without electricity.

The way my neighbors handle a prolonged power outage directly impacts how safe I feel at home.  See if you agree with me about whether we can survive a few days of “Mad Max” or “Little House on the Prairie.”

If you have any advice to contribute to readers or the author about PG&E, electrical outages, power distribution and transmission, public safety, or community disaster preparedness (and avoidance), please comment below.  Bookmark, Like, Share, Follow, or Subscribe. Contact me with questions or suggestions.

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