PG&E

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. workers repair equipment shortly after 12 p.m. Thursday at a location in the 13900 block of Tuolumne Road.

Lengthy, recurring power outages Tuolumne County residents have experienced as of late are "not acceptable," a regional executive for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Thursday evening and acknowledged the utility must do better.

The comments came from Joshua M. Simes, who was hired from Comcast and appointed to the vice president of PG&E's Central Valley region in May, during a 90-minute webinar specifically targeting Tuolumne County residents to explain new power line safety settings that have recently triggered multiple outages.

“Tuolumne County, thank you, we have heard you,” Simes said to close out the webinar. “We are committed to providing safe and reliable energy and being responsive to you.”

The utility has been under fire for years for its equipment being found at fault in some of the most devastating, deadly wildfires in state history, and since July 2020 it’s recovering from its most recent bankruptcy, in which terms the utility agreed to included a fire victims trust of $5.4 billion in cash and common stock representing a 22.19% ownership stake in PG&E Corporation.

Marketing and communications staff for PG&E said before the Thursday webinar that in order to help protect customers and communities during the current fire season, the utility “is adjusting the sensitivity of some of its electric equipment in high fire-threat districts to automatically turn off power faster if the system detects a problem. This effort is helping to prevent potential wildfires but is causing outages for some customers.”

Staged on the Microsoft Teams platform, the webinar was described at times as a “town hall” and an opportunity for customers and other people in Tuolumne County to ask questions.

Guests on the webinar platform could not tell how many people were watching the webinar, observe who was asking questions, or chat with other webinar viewers.

Tuolumne County supervisorial districts 1 and 4 — which together encompass the City of Sonora, most of Shaws Flat, Phoenix Lake, areas south of Big Hill Road, East Sonora, Standard, Curtis Creek, Groveland, Pine Mountain Lake, Lake Don Pedro, and Highway 120 corridor — have been the most impacted by recent outages to more sensitive power line safety settings, Simes said.

“Our goal, our stand, our declaration is that wildfires will stop,” said Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s vice president of wildfire mitigation operations and execution of public safety power shutoffs since April. 

Some of the utility’s imposed blackouts, which are intended to reduce wildfire threats during strong wind events and the utility calls public safety power shutoffs, began in 2019.

Wildfire activity up and down the state of California and within PG&E’s service area, which includes more than 15 million customers over 70,000 square miles, has been extreme so far this year, Quinlan said, noting “it’s a climate change issue,” and “increased fire activity is all about the fuels,” and “the majority of our service area is under extreme or exceptional drought conditions.”

Fuels up and down the Central Sierra region and elsewhere in PG&E’s service area have been October-level dry since August and July, Quinlan said.

About 15 minutes into the webinar, Quinlan began talking about the new, enhanced power line safety settings. Some of PG&E’s utility poles are now equipped with sensors designed to detect changes in current and problems on power lines, including branches, squirrels and birds striking lines. The new sensors are capable of shutting down power within one-tenth of one second.

Increased protection on 169 PG&E circuits is keeping communities safer since July 28, Quinlan said, referring to a graphic that stated, “We have seen a significant decline of reportable ignitions that could cause a catastrophic wildfire” including a 60% decrease compared to last year. Out of more than 350 PG&E outages since late July, the utility said it’s had one ignition.

The new, more sensitive sensors are helping prevent wildfires, “but we know that it has created a hardship for your community,” the graphic stated.

“It’s great but it’s coming at a cost,” Quinlan said. “Less reliability for you as a customer. Too many outages. Repeat outages. It’s not acceptable. These are not PSPS events. We can do a lot better dealing with these outages and communicating with you when they happen. We can’t tell you in advance when they will happen, but we can tell you when you can expect power to be restored.”

Quinlan showed maps of Tuolumne County and major PG&E substations — Peoria near Chicken Ranch Casino; Curtis 1703, 1704, and 1705 east of downtown Sonora; Mi-Wuk Village near Lyons Dam trailhead outside Twain Harte; and Spring Gap below Beardsley Dam.

“Since we implemented these adjusted settings in July 2021, there have been approximately 19 instances of outages in your community,” a graphic stated. It showed three outages connected to Peoria; nine outages connected to Curtis; two outages connected to Mi-Wuk Village; and one outage connected to Spring Gap.

Jason Regan, PG&E’s director of electric distribution system operations and emergency management since at least 2017, came on the webinar and said, “We absolutely can communicate better with you. That’s the reason for this town hall.” New protection settings are necessary on power lines “so that we don’t introduce any sparks or arcs into your community, especially in the current drought conditions.”

Regan talked about placing guards and warning devices on power lines to prevent squirrels and turkey vultures and other birds from contacting power lines and potentially starting a fire.

“We’re going to be better about protecting wildlife, including birds and animals,” he said. “We are trying to protect you, relative to these new settings.”

Regan introduced what he billed as a new “PG&E Report It” app for smartphones, and urged people in Tuolumne County to download the app and begin sending photos to PG&E of potential utility infrastructure safety issues.

“I shamelessly ask you to show us what you see,” he said, “so we can go out and try to get ahead of it and act on it.”

Regan said PG&E is investing in future plans for undergrounding 10,000 linear miles of power lines in the highest fire risk portions of its service area; system hardening with stronger poles and covered power lines in places, similar to some PG&E work in the Twain Harte area earlier this year; microgrids like the one installed in Groveland earlier this year; and remote, stand-alone grids that will rely on solar power and batteries to provide electricity.

“When?” Regan asked rhetorically about PG&E’s undergrounding plans. “I don’t have an answer for you yet. We’re scoping it out.”

David Meier, PG&E senior manager of local customer experience, came on the webinar and said the utility is trying to improve delivery of outage information and power restoration times for customers. He restated the easiest way to get in touch with PG&E during outages or other emergencies is to dial 1 (800) 743-5002.

“We know there’s more to do,” Meier said. “We want to hear from you. Send us an email at wildfiresafety@pge.com.”

Vanessa Bryan, PG&E senior manager for customer engagement and strategy, came on the webinar to introduce questions she said came from people watching the webinar.

Bryan said a customer asked why PG&E didn’t elaborate on new power line safety settings earlier this year. Quinlan answered, “It was just getting off the ground. It was implemented July 28. It was just right off the shelf.”

Bryan said a webinar viewer asked about drought and dead or dying trees.

“We do have a drought problem, with dead, deceased trees,” Quinlan said. “Tree mortality and bark beetles have taken their toll as well. It lines up with the CPUC high fire threat districts map. The majority are in this area, in the mountains. I’m not an arborist, but the enhanced power line safety settings are designed to protect against these threats.”

PG&E wants to remove dead trees, but the utility cannot always tell when trees are dead, and the utility does not want to clear cut to remove all trees, dead and alive.

Bryan said a customer she identified as Dan asked when his distribution circuit, Curtis, will get new equipment. Meier responded that some “overhead hardening” was done in the Curtis circuits area earlier this year, and undergrounding power lines is going to take time.

Bryan said another customer asked what can people do as customers during an outage.

“Admittedly we haven’t always listened,” Regan said. “You can grant our coworkers safe access so we can safely restore power in a timely fashion.”

Bryan told webinar viewers that if the webinar hosts had not answered their questions, they can email wildfiresafety@pge.com. She also said a recording of the webinar would be posted online.

A copy of the utility’s webinar presentation materials and a recording of the event are supposed to be available in the next few days at pge.com/firesafetywebinars. A spokeswoman for PG&E marketing and communications said Friday that 50 people tuned in for the webinar Thursday evening.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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