Farm customers anticipate impact of power shutoffs


Issue Date: June 12, 2019
By Christine Souza

To guard against destructive wildfires, all of California's investor-owned utilities now have protocols in place to de-energize power lines as a precautionary measure to avoid sparking wildfires.

Known as a "public safety power shutoff" or PSPS, the program to de-energize electrical power to lines in high-fire-threat areas is a fairly new practice by the three investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. The practice was mandated by the California Legislature last year under Senate Bill 901 to address catastrophic wildfires.

PG&E announced its first formal deployment of the new public safety power shutoff for the 2019 wildfire season in Northern California last weekend. The utility turned off power to customers in parts of Butte, Napa, Solano, Yolo and Yuba counties.

PG&E said it relies on specific criteria to determine whether to de-energize power lines: declaration of a National Weather Service red flag warning, low humidity, forecasts of sustained winds, dry fuel and real-time information.

A sudden shutoff of power would affect many rural residents in fire-prone areas who also happen to grow agricultural commodities, according to California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Legal Services Karen Norene Mills.

"The hope is these de-energization events are rare and fulfill the goal to keep people and property safe," Mills said. "This has become a sanctioned tool to prevent damage and fires throughout the state, so we anticipate it being used by the utilities. People in counties that are most vulnerable need to be aware of it. It is essential for protection in these circumstances, to ensure the utility has good contact information so that you can be notified."

Agricultural customers have unique concerns and in some cases, Mills said, it may be necessary for farmers and ranchers to consider the use of generators for essential water deliveries, such as for livestock. If there's enough advance notice, she said it may be feasible for farmers to irrigate in advance or accelerate other activities so that the area affected by the power shutoff is even more protected.

With the Pocket, Tubbs and Nuns fires having raced through Sonoma County in 2017, Taylor Serres of Serres Ranch and Vineyards in Sonoma said she understands the need to take precautions to reduce the risk of wildfires "to prevent a potential spark or a blown transformer," but she added the power shutoffs will bring concerns related to cooling facilities and wineries.

"We do have freezers, we do have cool boxes, so this means we have to spend a lot of money on precautionary items such as generators to keep everything running," Serres said. "Meanwhile, we need to do a better job allowing Cal Fire to do controlled burns and allow for there to be grazing and those types of opportunities, to limit the fire risk."

In Santa Barbara County, where both PG&E and Edison have service territory, winegrape grower Kevin Merrill said he is concerned about how a power shutoff will be enacted, asking, "How much power do you really turn off? How much of the grid do you really need to turn off to satisfy what you need to do?"

"This could affect vegetable growers, cooler operators and agricultural support industries that may all of a sudden be offline for maybe days at a time," Merrill said. "I think it will be up to those people to go out and get generators and make sure that they are protected, because all of these places are prime for fires."

In San Diego County, SDG&E has created a noticing system that sends email or text messages about pending or implemented shutoffs, according to San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson.

"With a good many of our farms embedded in the fire-prone backcountry or in the space between the backcountry and the urban communities, they feel very vulnerable to fire and understand the rationale for shutoffs," Larson said, adding that it is important that when a power shutoff results from wildfire conditions, "We do want power restored as soon as possible after conditions return to normal."

Getting power restored soon after conditions allow is "essential," Mills said, adding, "Electric rates are developed based on the assumption the service will be available whenever the customer flips the switch, and so at a minimum they deserve to have it back up as soon as possible."

Under the program, utilities must inspect all of their lines before they are turned back on.

"The utilities are committed to providing notice about a power shutoff as early as possible, but we don't know how early that will be, and we hope the shutoff doesn't last any longer than necessary," Mills said.

To inform customers about the program and to answer questions about how a public safety power shutoff will work, PG&E is holding a series of open house meetings through July.

"We are encouraging our customers to get prepared for potential power outages this fire season, because essentially all 5.7 million of our customers do have the potential to be impacted now that transmission lines are part of the safety program," PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said.

For PG&E wildfire information, including a schedule of the open-house meetings, see www.pge.com/en_US/safety/emergency-preparedness/natural-disaster/wildfires/wildfire-safety.page.

For Edison wildfire information, see www.sce.com/safety/wildfire/psps.

For SDG&E wildfire information, see www.sdge.com/our-commitment-wildfire-safety.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.