Why don’t we force utilities to better target blackouts?

Without electricity, the theater marquee in Orinda remains dark as vehicles make their way during a PG&E blackout, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo / Bay Area News Group

The idea: Public safety power shut-offs, or de-energization, have been used in California since 2013, mainly by San Diego Gas and Electric during high fire danger to reduce the risk of electrical fires. 

The pros: SDG&E hardened its system after a 2007 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. It now operates a “networked” grid of major transmission lines, smaller distribution lines and circuits that allows distribution from different paths. The company also has invested in “reclosers,”  which are pole-mounted circuit breakers that allow authorities to more surgically pinpoint trouble on a line and shut off power to smaller areas. The utility’s blackouts have affected as many as 23,000 households, and as few as one or two customers.

The cons: PG&E can’t be so precise. It serves 70,000 square miles of California, and runs a “radial” system, meaning power lines stretch over long distances. PG&E serves 16 million customers compared to 3.6 million for SDG&E over 4,100 square miles. 

The odds: Eight in 10, but it’ll be a work in progress. According to PG&E’s wildfire mitigation plan, it pledged to work on finding ways to reduce the impact of blackouts ahead of this year’s wildfire season. So far, the utility has cut power to millions of people in dozens of counties several times in October.