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Bruce Rayner: Root issue with fire outages

Bruce Rayner | Other Voices

June 26: First local power outage of the new season. PGE talked about better directed power outages this year, but not fewer. The PGE website proclaimed that the shutoff proved their new hi-tech system worked, where power was shut off in an instant due to a falling branch, and we were now safe, though it triggered the outage for most of Nevada City.

Always the investigative engineer, I probed deeper. A cartoon on the PGE site says it best. Starting last July, PGE started to update their distribution system with fast acting breakers.

Good start. Still, PGE has said it will take years to update their system. Will any problems be solved? Not really.

So far, in just one morning, we’ve seen the whole town go dark due to PGE’s failure to use any new technology properly. This is not much of an improvement over a couple years ago when power would be cut off over northern California in the likelihood of a wind caused line fault.

I am considering only PGE-caused fires in this commentary. Most wildfires are naturally caused. Yet from the blatant approach that PGE takes for responsibility in fires that happen on their watch, it is obvious that PGE does not respect the cost and the impact their random power outages have on our lives and businesses. That is the problem that must be dealt with.

Is there a better way PGE could protect us from their wildfires? Of course! Simpler and cheaper. It will require not money, rather, common sense and real thinking. Thus, a few observations that might have prevented even the current false fire alarm and power outage:

1. PGE crows about the safety of their new circuit breakers. What they don’t say is currently all lines are protected by circuit breakers. True, they may not be as fast as the new ones. However, the old system has one big advantage not mentioned. Each time there is a momentary fault on any line, it is reported as a glitch on displays at a PGE control center. That information is time stamped as a warning that something is wrong at the location reported. PGE has had this capability for years.

2. In all of the recent fires going back to the Camp Fire outside Paradise where PGE lines have been at fault, google research will show that the electronic warning of a line failure was ignored by PGE. Now we have the nut of the real problem to solve.

3. Further, in at least three fires — Camp, Kincade and Dixie — Cal Fire was on site fighting a fire before PGE came looking for a problem, perhaps a day later. Reports of such incidents are on file with the California Public Utilities Commission.

4. Obviously, once a fire gets started, only firefighters and massive efforts can stop it. Destruction has begun. It is clear that PGE is not using the resources they have in the best way to prevent their fires.

5. Here’s an example of resource misuse in Nevada City. PGE declares on their site after a shutdown that all lines must be examined for damage, not just the one where a branch fell. Helicopters were buzzing overhead for hours before PGE enabled power. Question: Why this useless buzzing if most of the lines had been working perfectly only a short time before? Does that make us feel safer?

Wait! What happened to their electronic detection system, which probably showed where the branch fell? Obviously ignored or not used. Result: Mindless outages.

If PGE made better use of their tools, would that help? PGE is painfully slow in sending crews out for inspection;,so who could respond quickly? Easy. Cal Fire! PGE is good at starting fires. Cal Fire is the expert in stopping them.

Conclusion: If any possible risk of fire exists, it would be best to partner with Cal Fire and send a standby crew to the site. (Electronically, they know where it is!)

This poses a people-based problem. Cal Fire and PGE must have a good, close working relationship. Do they? No.

Checking, I talked to the head office of Cal Fire and asked the question. After a stony silence, a guarded reply: “You don’t know the problems. We don’t talk to them (PGE).”

I think that answers the question. The big issue for fires caused by PGE lines is not aging lines or equipment, rather a need for better communications between those government agencies tasked with protecting us.

Bruce Rayner lives in Nevada City.

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