PG&E Planned Power Outages

Pacific Gas & Electric filed its state-mandated 2020 wildfire safety plan in February. The extensive plan proposes to clear vegetation, inspect power lines, install sensors and cameras, and otherwise invest in efforts to prevent a recurrence of the deadly wildfires that pushed the Northern California utility into bankruptcy.

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But perhaps the most controversial part of PG&E’s plan is to dramatically expand the scope of planned grid outages, which are intended to preempt the risk of its grid sparking more deadly wildfires this summer, and the disruptions and dangers those blackouts could cause.

Why Power Outages Will Be Common Across Northern California Again in 2020

PG&E didn’t specify how many customers could go without power this summer under the expanded “public safety power shutoff” (PSPS) authority it’s seeking from the California Public Utilities Commission. But in its filing, the utility warned that while it is planning them only as a “last resort,” it will be “alerting 5.4 million PG&E electric customer premises,” or its entire customer base, that they might be facing power outages due to public safety power shutoffs this summer.

To mitigate these effects, the utility has laid out a raft of proposals, from sectionalizing portions of its grid to reducing the scope of outages during PSPS events, to building “resilience zones” — community centers or critical facilities in high-risk areas that can be equipped with grid interconnection hubs to support fast deployment of backup generators. It’s also proposing some novel concepts, like working with non-utility partners to install or utilize on-site generation or distributed energy resources for continuous power during safety outages, and exploring the potential for true microgrid systems to play a role.

But beyond grid sectionalizing and the hopes of enlisting private partners for backup power, most of these next-generation efforts won’t be ready for the 2020 fire season. And PG&E isn’t setting a timeline for some of the emerging technologies it’s testing to reduce fire risk, such as faster detection of potential fire-starting faults, or sensors and analytics to provide real-time “situational awareness” on its distribution grid.

For customers who may be affected by fire-prevention blackouts this summer, PG&E’s plan proposes relatively few options, beyond working with local first responders and critical services providers in high-risk areas to ensure emergency power is available, and providing up-to-date service restoration information, bill payment relief, and other “customer services and programs” for the rest of those left in the dark.

The conditions that drive PG&E to shut down power stem from long-standing weather patterns that take place every year. Spring rains peter out in early summer leading to dry conditions that only get dryer as we progress through summer into fall. Exacerbating the risk that dry conditions alone present, high wind events – often called “Diablo Winds” because they originate in the east and often cross over Mt. Diablo – happen with greater frequency during the same dry months. These “downslope” winds sweep into the Bay Area and Central Coast bringing warm, dry air along with fears of rapidly spreading any existing fires in the area.

California utility San Diego Gas & Electric was the first to get approval from the California Public Utilities Commission for public safety power shutoffs, in response to its deadly 2007 wildfire season. After the deadly Northern California wildfires of 2017, the CPUC extended that authority to PG&E and Southern California Edison. PG&E applied the program last year to cover its distribution system or transmission lines below 115 kilovolts and in areas considered to be at the highest fire risk, according to the CPUC’s newly developed fire map.

In its first use of its PSPS authority, PG&E shut off power for about 60,000 customers in October 2018, a move that sparked widespread complaints and claims of damages from spoiled food, interrupted business, and the like. But in November, it considered but decided against de-energizing power lines. That includes the power line suspected of playing a role in starting the Camp Fire; the utility deemed the risks not great enough.

Impact of Extended Power Outages

Extended power outages may impact the whole community and the economy. A power outage is when the electrical power goes out unexpectedly. A power outage may:

1. Disrupt communications, water, and transportation.

2. Close retail businesses, grocery stores, gas stations, ATMs, banks, and other services.

3. Cause food spoilage and water contamination.

4. Prevent use of medical devices.

Note that your site doesn’t even need to be in a high wildfire risk area. If the transmission line that services your property runs through a high risk area, PG&E’s plan may require them to shut off your power along with many other customers.

Prepare Your Business for a Power Outage

  • Make sure PG&E has your proper contact information so you get notified about a planned outage. Visit this link to confirm.
  • If you have a stationary generator, make sure it is sufficient. Even if it doesn’t have many hours on it, it could be too old to be worth repairing or maintaining.
  • Update or prepare a written plan for when an outage occurs.
  • Have your backup generator serviced (see more information below)
  • Arrange for rental generators NOW. In many areas, rental generators are already in use or reserved.

CD & Power’s Commitment is not only to our loyal Customers, but our new ones as well!

Even though we have been in this business for many years, the past few fire seasons have taught us a lot. We’re working hard to share our insights with customers so they can manage the impact of outages as well as possible.

 

We are educating our staff about how to make sure customer sites are prepared, evaluating our inventory of ancillary supplies like cables, and implementing a staffing plan that will allow us to respond quickly when rental backup power needs to be deployed quickly. In order to prioritize our customers with urgent needs, routine scheduled maintenance visits may need to be postponed

As we mention above, be sure to reserve any portable generators early and update your disaster preparedness plan. For our generator service customers – during outages, we may need to postpone routine maintenance appointments.

What to Know About Backup Generators to Supply Your Power Needs

Power outages are commonplace during disasters, and they may last for several days. You can reduce losses and speed the recovery process by installing an emergency generator. Meanwhile, renting portable generators can provide temporary power. Both can help prevent the interruption of operations at businesses and critical infrastructure facilities like hospitals, water treatment facilities, telecommunications networks, and emergency response agencies.

Federal, State, and local regulations may require you to obtain a permit before using a generator. Make sure you follow these regulations when you operate and maintain your generator.

Why Perform Maintenance on my Standby Generator Before a Power Outage or Other Unforseen Problem Arises

The average life expectancy of a well-maintained service vehicle is approximately 5,000 hours (assuming 300,000 miles at 60 mph), a typical standby generator set can last from 10,000 to 30,000 hours. On the other hand, a standby generator might operate as little as 26 hours a year (based on only 30 minutes of weekly exercise and no outages) or as much as several hundred hours a year, depending upon the number and duration of power outages.

In either case, a standby generator set could conceivably last 20 to 30 years. One way to ensure a long, reliable operating life is to implement a preventive maintenance (PM) program.

Preventive maintenance and service are typically done on a schedule based upon engine hours and/or time periods. The maintenance cycle can—and should—be adapted to meet specific application needs. The more hours per year a unit operates, the more frequently it will require service. Environment also plays a role: The more severe the environment (dusty, extremely hot or cold, highly humid, etc.), the more frequent the need for service may be.

Most OEM-recommended maintenance schedules for generators—whether a unit is powered by diesel or natural gas fuels—are roughly the same. The typical maintenance cycle includes a general inspection followed by scheduled inspection and service of the following critical systems.

  • Fuel system (diesel fuel requires more maintenance)
  • Coolant system
  • Lubrication system
  • Air system (combustion and cooling air)
  • Starting system (batteries and charger)
  • Alternator (a frequently overlooked item)
  • Transfer switch (another often-overlooked item)

At a minimum, a good visual inspection should be done on a monthly basis, as well as after any extended generator run times. Maintain general cleanliness of the generator and its surroundings. In an enclosed unit, make sure there are no rodents trying to take up residence.

The above items are by no means a complete list. Other PM aspects worth considering include the conducting of weekly exercise periods under load to test the entire system for proper operation and make the generator work at operating temperature. A monthly load test of at least 30% of rated load is required in some applications, using the building load, a load bank or a combination of the two.

OEMs provide detailed standby generator maintenance guidelines that should be followed to provide the longest most reliable service life possible for their respective equipment. General guidelines for specific applications also can be found in several recognized standards. One such standard is the NFPA 110, Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems (2018 Edition). It is an excellent resource on general-maintenance requirements and detailed information on some specific maintenance items. This standard also contains a suggested maintenance schedule which, if followed, will meet minimum maintenance requirements for Level 1 and Level 2 emergency standby power systems. Remember: Establishing and following a thorough maintenance and service plan will provide you with a reliable power supply for many years.

Environmental Regulations That May Also Affect Your Power Generator

Emergency power generators can be critical pieces of equipment for any facility, especially in the stormy seasons of spring or winter or in disasters such as hurricanes or floods. If you have one in your facility now, or are thinking about getting one, you need to be aware of the environmental regulations which are triggered by having one onsite.

EPA defines emergency generators as “…stationary combustion devices, such as reciprocating internal combustion engine or turbines that serve solely as a secondary source of mechanical or electrical power whenever the primary energy supply is disrupted or discontinued during power outages or natural disasters that are beyond the control or operator of a facility.”

There are no time limits to using emergency generators during an emergency, but there are limits to the number of hours a generator can be used in non-emergency situations such as maintenance, testing, and other occasions such as offsetting electrical demand or to reduce electrical costs.

The bigger the generator, and the older the generator, the more likely environmental regulations will be triggered. The type of fuel used to power the generator also affects compliance. Generators can run on diesel fuel, gasoline, propane or natural gas.

Key Environmental Regulations of Generator Use

  • Air Emissions
  • Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures (SPCC)
  • Tank Certifications and Registrations
  • Employee Exposure Issues

Though technically a safety issue, any backup generator which is brought into a facility could cause additional employee exposure issues. Before the use of generators, noise monitoring would need to be conducted to determine the potential noise exposures to employees in the area. Exhausts emitted from indoor generators may cause additional issues with employee exposure to chemicals, causing the need for engineering controls or additional employee personal protective equipment use.

The regulations which apply to emergency power generators can vary greatly depending on style, type, model, your location, facility setup and other factors. For more information, review this post that details environmental regulations that affect generator use.

Conclusion

Even without catastrophic fires, 2020 is likely to be a challenging year for businesses and other organizations across Northern California because of the planned power outage policies PG&E has enacted — all in addition to the challenges presented by the Coronavirus. Prepare your business now in order to minimize the effects.

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