Power outage signs.

Why Humboldt Went Dark

Understanding the Public Power Safety Shutoff and its impact on Humboldt County.

Understanding the Public Power Safety Shutoff

PG&E cut power to more than 700,000 homes and businesses across Northern California, including Humboldt County, beginning early the morning of Oct. 9.

State officials have criticized PG&E, including Governor Gavin Newsom.

“This is not, from my perspective, a climate story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” Newsom said in a press conference on Thursday.

Humboldt County residents had less than 24 hours of notice, as PG&E’s initial warnings did not include Humboldt as an affected county.

PG&E sent warnings out to customers for some time about possible outages, but few were prepared for such a sudden total power shut down.

The shutoff came as a new last-resort tactic by PG&E called a “Public Safety Power Shutoff.”

The California Public Utilities Commission issued a resolution in May, supporting PSPS tactics to prevent wildfires like the Camp Fire, a wildfire that tore through Butte County, Calif. in November of last year.

“Clearly something needs to be done. There are lines breaking and they’re causing fires.”

Jeffrey Kane

The Camp Fire burned over 153 thousand acres, destroyed over 18,000 homes and killed 85 people, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

California state investigators determined poorly-maintained electrical lines as the cause of the fire. PG&E was thus made responsible for the fire, and faced potential liabilities of $30 billion dollars. In January, PG&E filed for bankruptcy.

PG&E and U.S. District Judge William Alsup have since gone back and forth over the details of PG&E’s restructuring plans to repair the aging electrical lines. According to PG&E Spokesperson Megan McFarland, the utility has been working on a variety of operations.

“Our ongoing and expanded efforts include further enhancing vegetation management around power lines, conducting accelerated safety inspections of electric infrastructure in high fire-threat areas, and hardening our electric system,” McFarland said in an email.

Businesses around Humboldt reported tens of thousands of dollars in losses in sales and spoiled foods.

According to a filing to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, PG&E only made it through about a third of the tree trimming work it had planned this year due to an employee shortage.

Humboldt State University Associate Professor of Fire Ecology and Fuels Management Jeffrey Kane said PG&E and the rest of the state are going to have to learn to manage vegetation to reduce the risk of wildfires.

“Clearly something needs to be done,” Kane said. “There are lines breaking and they’re causing fires.”

While Kane did not know the details of PG&E’s lines and practices, he said keeping vegetation away from transmission lines will require continual maintenance.

In the long-term, one model for PG&E’s future might come from San Diego Gas & Electric, as suggested by reporting in the Los Angeles Times. After a 2007 fire, SDG&E spent over $1 billion burying and insulating lines. SDG&E also sectioned off areas into separate micro-grids, so that shut offs could be more targeted and less widespread.

However, both of those practices will take time and money. Until then, PG&E will implement outages like the one triggered last week by a National Weather Service Red Flag Warning of high winds and low humidity.

The outage hit over 700,000 customers across California. In Humboldt, a late notice meant residents had only about 12 hours to prepare for what was predicted to be a three-to-five day outage.

While the outage only lasted about 24 hours in Humboldt, the outage caused widespread closures and the activation of the Humboldt County Emergency Operations Center.

Businesses around Humboldt reported tens of thousands of dollars in losses in sales and spoiled foods.

A news release from the Eureka Police Department noted a 26% increase in dispatches during the outage, but attributed the increase to nearly 40 false alarms. The five traffic collisions and three burglaries both fell within normal ranges, according to the release.

Office of Emergency Services Administrative Officer Sean Quincey said he was proud of the way the county responded and supported one another through the outage, which he said is essential in any emergency in Humboldt.

“Humboldt County is isolated,” Quincey said over the phone. “It’ll take time to get resources up here. Until then we need to support each other, and I was happy to see that happened.”

Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer shared a similar outlook over the phone.

“Humboldt County is isolated. It’ll take time to get resources up here. Until then we need to support each other…”

Sean Quincey

“I saw a lot of residents helping other residents and making sure that their neighbors were safe,” Diemer said. “So the resiliency of our community is strong.”

Unlike Humboldt, Quincey said some communities farther south received 48 hours notice—which, ideally, Humboldt will have in the future. McFarland echoed that statement.

“Our goal, dependent on weather, is to send customer alerts at 48 hours, 24 hours and just prior to shutting off power,” McFarland said.

Just before the outage, there were efforts at the Humboldt Bay Generating Plant to provide electricity for at least part of Humboldt County. But McFarland said HBGS doesn’t have the capabilities to operate when disconnected from the grid.

However, McFarland suggested that HBGS may be able to provide energy to Humboldt in future emergencies.

“PG&E does have an engineering study underway to evaluate what plant modifications would be required to add that capability,” McFarland said. “Including changes that may be required to the existing air permit to allow HBGS to operate over the range necessary when disconnected from the grid.”

The outage ultimately served as a wake-up call for the county.

“We’ve learned that this is something that we need to be more prepared for,” Quincey said.

In a press conference held at the PG&E headquarters in San Francisco on Oct. 10, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson apologized for the outage and for failures in their website, maps and call centers.

“To put it simply, we were not adequately prepared to support the operational event.”

Bill Johnson, PG&E CEO

“To put it simply, we were not adequately prepared to support the operational event,” Johnson said.

As for the future of PSPS events, Johnson said PG&E is working to prevent outages from becoming the new normal. However, Johnson made the statement with a caveat.

“Given the risk to public safety, there’s a desire to have zero spark during conditions like the ones we had over the last several days,” Johnson said. “We will very likely have to make this kind of decision again in the future.”

Corrections: A previous version of this article listed the Camp Fire’s acreage in the millions, not the thousands.

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