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Virus-Hit California Girds for ‘Long and Difficult’ Fire Season

Aug. 18, 2020, 1:58 PM

Utilities across California came under criticism last year as millions were plunged into darkness during planned outages to prevent wildfires.

Now comes the 2020 wildfire season, which brings higher fire risk and the added complication of a worldwide pandemic.

A heat wave that began over the weekend also led to rolling blackouts and prompted an investigation by the state. PG&E Corp., the state’s largest utility, has been able to order only a fraction of the portable generators it may need for medical customers reliant on power because of supply chain backlogs related to the coronavirus.

Other utilities, like Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric, are planning for drive-thru support centers to avoid people congregating. So-called Go Bags with packaged food and pocket phone charges will be part of the response, along with outside shelter services.

Also in the plan is making sure there’s enough power for pop-up testing sites for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and vaccine development facilities.

“We are likely in store for a long and difficult fire season,” California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) President Marybel Batjer said during one of three hearings last week on planned power shutoffs. “These implications are not merely questions of inconvenience. The impacts on people’s lives and the stakes can not be overstated.”

The state’s investor-owned electric utilities are generally protected from liability due to outages—but in the case of power shutdowns, they could face lawsuits and sanctions from the CPUC for not fulfilling obligations related to the shutoffs. A show-cause proceeding on whether PG&E should be sanctioned for planned outages in 2019 is still underway.

Worse Fires, Highest Cases

During utilities’ so-called public safety power shutoffs during last year’s fire season, homes, businesses, schools, and even traffic lights and cell towers were left without power.

That was during a relatively calm year when 7,860 fires burned roughly 260,000 acres.

This year so far, more than 5,800 fires have scorched nearly 205,000 acres—with the most dangerous part of the season yet to come, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.

Drought-like conditions, higher temperatures, thunderstorms, and high winds are forecast for southern and parts of northern California, presenting above-normal risk in October and November. The state also has the nation’s highest number of positive Covid-19 tests: more than 620,000 as of Monday.

“This is a pandemic that is not going away soon,” Batjer said, calling the power shutdowns a last resort.

Commissioners and fire and emergency responders peppered PG&E, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Edison International’s Southern California Edison with questions in separate hearings last week, focusing on how the utilities planned to reduce the scope and duration of the outages, as well as how they would provide support to affected communities in ways that don’t exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic.

Batjer called the shutdowns forced by PG&E—which was blamed for the deadly 2018 Camp Fire and filed bankruptcy over liability costs—haphazardly implemented. At its peak, at least 2 million people lost power during planned PG&E outages last year.

Smaller, Smarter Shutoffs

PG&E Interim President Michael Lewis, named to the job this month, said his goal was to make the power shutoffs smaller, shorter, and smarter. The pandemic has been part of overall planning.

The utility has ensured hospitals treating Covid-19 patients can operate effectively, designated food banks essential, and identified Covid-19 testing sites, treatment areas, and associated housing.

“We will work with them to ensure they have what they need,” Lewis said.

Facilities that make product components for test kits or are involved with vaccine development are also being tracked to “ensure they are energized and have the support they need,” said Laurie Giammona, PG&Es senior vice president and chief customer officer.

Vulnerable Customers

The utility has also relaxed its rules for medical baseline customers, which allows for lower rates and advanced notice of power shutoffs for people who rely on electricity for medical reasons and certain living needs. Applications are up by 20,000 and don’t require a doctor’s certification, she said.

Portable batteries will be distributed by partners, though more may be needed for those who need power for medical assistance. PG&E has about 13,000 customers who are consider medical baseline and vulnerable, but the utility said it will only have 3,000 batteries by September.

Not all customers might require batteries so PG&E is working with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers and other partners on battery delivery.

“Covid has slowed the supply chain down,” Giammona said. “If we can secure more than 3,000 batteries, we will secure more.”

New Testing Sites

San Diego Gas & Electric—which has 64% of its 4,100 square mile territory in high fire-threat zones—has also inspected medical facilities to be sure they had reliable service and added Covid-19 testing sites to its list of critical customers.

“They’re popping up in places by the day,” CEO Caroline Winn said. “Our challenge is making sure we keep up with all the new Covid testing facilities.”

The utility has also hardened infrastructure, partnered with the online community NextDoor to send targeted messages about outages, installed microgrids where feasible, distributed generators to medical customers, and added more ability to turn off sections of its territory, rather than large swaths.

Southern California Edison has enhanced outreach to health care facilities, redesigned its emergency operations center with coronavius in mind, and added more community resource sites, accounting for social distancing, said Phil Herrington, Southern California Edison’s senior vice president of transmission and distribution.

“This pandemic has put an unprecedented stress on resources,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com

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