ATASCADERO — Before they could dig into a marathon meeting schedule on their regular June 11 agenda, the Atascadero City Council spent an hour and a half on a much-anticipated presentation from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The corporation’s representative, Eric Daniels, was respectful of the Council’s obligation to represent constituents during questioning about the utility’s plans to implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) through the fire season. He was, however, mildly adversarial at times, seeking to absolve his employer of direct responsibility for any mitigation measures the City or private business owners would need to undertake, twice asking rhetorical questions in reply to Mayor Heather Moreno and Councilwoman Heather Newsom’s requests for more solid answers on transmission line routes and probable logistics.
Asked by Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi about what would happen to gas stations and fuel supply for the public during an extended blackout, he said, “I don’t know how they’ll operate...their business model is not [PG&E’s] responsibility.”
He later added to similar lines of questioning, “How would you manage [the absence of electrically powered services] if they were all wiped out in an earthquake tomorrow?”
The crux of the issue is that businesses and individuals need solid emergency plans and supplies in place well before a situation becomes an emergency.
While the Council was assured by City Manager Rachelle Rickard and Fire Chief Casey Bryson that the municipality would be ready to weather the storm, as well as treat an extended power-cut as an emergency situation, they were well aware that most residents would not be.
Some of the good news, Daniels said, the protocol for PSPS allows about 48 hours notice based on weather forecasts; humidity and wind conditions being the primary drivers of fire danger.
“You all know [local weatherman] John Lindsey,” he said, “he’s part of a division of PG&E and a network of weather forecasts we rely on for that data.”
Mentioned in case residents have seen unusual helicopters hovering near rural power lines, PG&E has been conducting inspection flybys with sensitive thermal imaging gear. That, coupled with manual inspection and other methods have given their engineers some idea of the state of the grid.
“The good part is we’ve been able to identify needs to be addressed,” Daniels said, “the spooky part is we’re identifying lots of needs to be addressed.”
For the municipal leaders to be aware of, he added, fixing issues will doubtless lead to an uptick in residential complaints as they close side streets and roads at intervals for line work.
The company would like the public to accept broader clearances around poles as well. Clearance mandates had already been increased to four feet by the California Public Utilities Commission but 12 would be preferable, he said, adding that trees growing in a canopy over lines should also be cut back.
Two things to keep in mind concerning probabilities of an outage ordered in order to prevent fire during extreme conditions, it might never happen before infrastructure is hardened for upcoming seasons, but if it did the whole North County could be impacted.
“If you look at [this set of conditions] they’re not common, but this is where it does occur locally, and across the whole region,” Daniels said, “if it’s hot and dry in Atascadero it’s likely to be hot and dry in Paso Robles as well.”
Unlike the brownouts and rolling outages California residents may recall from the early-2000s, impacts caused at the time by an artificial market manipulation of supply on the interstate transmission grid, enforcement of a PSPS acts on the local physical infrastructure.
“It’s not flipping a switch,” Daniels said, “it's a process that takes time, manual inspection at connection points.”
That’s in part because, for safety's sake, the utility is going ‘old school,’ with eyes and boots on the ground replacing automated systems which normally route energy around electrical shorts. The process could take between three to five days, after the danger condition has passed.
“We’ve already seen wildfires that were [deemed to be] caused by PG&E facilities and we don’t want to have any of those conflagrations caused by PG&E equipment in the future,” Daniels told Newsom after explaining that he couldn’t be more precise around areas of impact.
Chief Bryson is the City of Atascadero’s designated contact for all future dealings on the matter of PSPS implementations but, Daniels said, all information made available to the Chief will go out to the public as well. The company is also looking at how to be in direct contact with residents who do not have their own meter. Medically vulnerable customers are already on the company’s radar.
A June 20 meeting is planned in the City of San Luis Obispo for the public coming up in SLO for more information with the website — www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts — established for public outreach as well.