What can California’s utilities learn from San Diego’s planned blackouts?

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The head of Pacific Gas and Electric, Bill Johnson, recently admitted that his utility did a poor job of overseeing the scheduled blackouts in the Bay Area last week. Millions of residents there were left in the dark for days. In a letter to the California Public Utilities Commission, Johnson said PG&E “cannot become the status quo.”

Meanwhile, SoCal Edison is warning of more potential outages as strong winds are expected through Sunday. It’s also facing criticism after investigators found that the Saddleridge fire in Sylmar began near a SoCal Edison transmission tower. The Saddleridge fire is still burning. 

These planned blackouts are new in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has been using the strategy for years. Planning started after the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice wildfires broke out in 2007, and destroyed more than 1,300 homes and killed two people. Since then, the utility has spent some $1.5 billion in ratepayer dollars to ensure scheduled outages go smoothly and affect as few people as possible. 

Their efforts included: 

  • Establishing 190 weather stations that provide info about wind speed, humidity, and temperature in fire-prone areas every 10 minutes.
  • Adding 17 high-definition cameras located on mountain tops to improve fire detection. 
  • Creating a weather center that employs full-time meteorologists and fire scientists. 
  • Adding a second helicopter to pour water on fires as soon as possible.
  • Placing 10,000 miles of power lines underground.
  • Moving wires away from particularly dangerous areas.
  • Breaking their power grid system into smaller pieces, and knowing exactly when to turn which pieces on and off. 

When it came to notifying customers, SDG&E focused on vulnerable customers such as those with medical devices. 

They also established so-called resilience centers, where people can access power to charge their phones, use the internet, etc. 

“Both infrastructure and outreach, there have been improvements,” says Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, and Senior Research Scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment. 

He points out that San Diego acknowledges they still face significant wildfire risks: “They kind of have a philosophy that they're never done.”

He says that since 2007, San Diego County hasn’t had another major fire that was caused by utility lines. “And you contrast that with the rest of California, Edison and PG&E service territories in particular, where we've seen massive wildfires that were caused by failures either of the lines themselves or when trees fell into lines.”

Wara says PG&E, SoCal Edison, and the California Public Utility Commission see San Diego as an example to learn from. But SoCal Edison and PG&E’s service territories are much bigger than San Diego’s, and they have more customers who are exposed to fire risks.

Still, PG&E and SoCal Edison are working to implement San Diego’s strategies, which will take several years. “PG&E has deployed something like 600 weather stations this year to start collecting data. But they need to collect the data, analyze it. Then they need to go out into the field and make physical changes to the architecture of their electricity grid,” Wara explains. 

“I do think, though, that this is going to be a part of the electricity reality for these very dangerous parts of California for the foreseeable future. And so we as customers need to adapt,” he says.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Devan Schwartz

Credits

Guest:
Michael Wara - Senior Research Scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment; Director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University

Host:
Barbara Bogaev

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Alexandra Sif Tryggvadottir, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Devan Schwartz, Caleigh Wells