PG&E, the California-based utility company, has experienced its worst reliability performance in decades, according to new data. The company implemented new technology to quickly shut off power after incidents in order to prevent sparking wildfires. However, excluding major storm events, PG&E customers faced an average power outage of 256 minutes in 2022, surpassing the previous year’s mark of 218 minutes. The lowest reliability mark seen so far was recorded back in 2001 at 211 minutes. These figures indicate a significant decline in reliability.
One of the hardest-hit areas in the past two years has been the Redwood Estates community, located in the Santa Cruz mountains south of Los Gatos. Jeff Bates, the general manager of the enclave consisting of 375 homes, has expressed the frustration and disappointment of the community. Bates stated that after a few hours without power, the initial romance and charm fade away, leaving people upset and dissatisfied.
The Los Gatos 1106 circuit, responsible for providing power to much of Redwood Estates, has been identified as one of PG&E’s worst-performing areas. Records reveal that this circuit experienced power loss for more than five minutes on ten separate occasions in both 2022 and 2021. When residents voice their complaints to Bates, he attempts to maintain a light-hearted approach by suggesting they leave the area, go to town, or watch a movie, as power outages might last for multiple days.
The utility company attributes a significant factor in the decline of reliability to its increased use of “Fast Trip” settings. These settings are designed to rapidly shut off power within a tenth of a second at the first sign of trouble. PG&E credits this technology with reducing equipment-sparked fires by 68% compared to the average of the previous three years when it was not in use. While the technology has undoubtedly reduced the risk of fires, experts argue that it also causes delays for customers as crews locate the cause of the outage and safely restore service.
When the technology was first utilized in 2021, PG&E’s reliability performance plummeted, ranking near the bottom of the list for for-profit utilities, according to federal government tracking data. As of now, the national reliability utility rankings for 2022 are yet to be released, leaving the true impact of the Fast Trip technology within the industry unknown.
Caroline Thomas Jacobs, the head of California’s Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety, states that the reliability data reveals a greater suffering among PG&E customers compared to other utilities that employ the same technology. Jacobs suggests that the company’s aging infrastructure is a significant reason for its lagging reliability performance. Independent safety monitors overseeing the company’s operations discovered that much of PG&E’s system uses equipment that is two decades older than the industry average. Additionally, more than half of its substations are running beyond their expected lifespan. Moreover, the company faces a substantial backlog of 170,000 maintenance cases in high fire threat areas.
Critics argue that PG&E customers should not bear the consequences of the company’s apparent negligence. Neal Reardon, an official with Sonoma Clean Power, an alternative energy provider for the North Bay, emphasizes that community members are paying directly or indirectly for a system that lacks proper maintenance. Disabled customers, in particular, face severe hardships during power outages caused by the Fast Trip technology. Without power, they are unable to evacuate, contact emergency services, or charge their vital medical equipment, leaving them in a state of fear and vulnerability.
PG&E responded to the criticism by stating that they are committed to reducing ignition risks and improving reliability. The company acknowledges that there is more work to be done and emphasizes that they are actively working on these issues. In the Redwood Estates community, PG&E plans to install stronger wires and power poles along half of the 1106 Los Gatos circuit by 2029. In the interim, crews are installing fuse technology to expedite the detection and resolution of outages.
While there are signs of progress in Redwood Estates, such as providing backup batteries for CPAP devices, residents are advised to prepare for prolonged power outages by having generators and chainsaws on hand. This precautionary measure speaks to the ongoing challenges faced by PG&E and the necessity for individuals to be self-reliant during times of unreliability.