What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?

The preemptive power shutoff for 800,000 addresses by Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is directly affecting approximately two to four million residents. The power company took this action to prevent their feeble power line system from starting fires during this period of strong winds. Farther south in California, San Diego Gas and Electric … Continue reading “What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?”

The preemptive power shutoff for 800,000 addresses by Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is directly affecting approximately two to four million residents. The power company took this action to prevent their feeble power line system from starting fires during this period of strong winds. Farther south in California, San Diego Gas and Electric has warned residents living at 30,000 addresses that their power could also be turned off this week.

The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger  population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses. At some point cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones.

Firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountain tops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.

All that is the assessment of someone hundreds of miles away. For the thoughts of a person much closer to what is actually happening on the ground, we turn to Rob Carlmark, a meteorologist for ABC10 in Sacramento, who is surrounded by areas affected by PG&E’s power shutoff. Here, with his permission, are samples of what he has been writing on his Twitter account, @rcarlmark:


10:25 a.m. October 9, 2019

So here is what’s happening on the ground in California for the fire weather story. It’s genuinely freaking everybody out. If we get ZERO fires out of this (small miracle) the power shut off will be remembered for a long time. #MorningBlend10

Rob Carlmark
Rob Carlmark photo.

Despite the pretty large media effort by PG&E to warn people of the power outages…many people we are talking to at closed gas stations had no idea. Turns out not everyone…especially in rural areas look at the internet all day. Some of these folks were BLINDSIDED. We have to take them at their word because they are far away from the windiest areas affecting lines or COULD affect lines. Many work far away, and fuel up often. If you are at a gas station…let’s face it you NEED gas and maybe can’t drive 15-20 miles away to get it…or wait in long lines to get gas. They also have an unexpected day off work…maybe cancelled school..kid/kids to pick up and figure out what to do for DAYS with no power. Of course the alternative is having power on…and a well known source for fires active.

This is a tough spot to be in for 100,000s of customers which likely includes million+total in actual population if you extrapolate for households etc.

They are not going to reimburse people for spoiled food since it was planned. If an outage was caused by an extreme event and weather they might…case by case basis.

Also remember a lot of these people just got hit with a non-renewal for home insurance and if they found someone…it costs drastically more. Also remember that many of these people are actively trying to move…sell their home…can’t find insurance for new buyer or are dropping their prices all the time. This is the APEX of stress in some of the most beautiful places you ever could live.

We need to add more places… the Bay area is about to find out today if one of the major tunnels…MAJOR…will have to shut down for power outages at noon. Traffic there is a true daily horror show…and if you find this out…at work you are going to freak.

We haven’t even talked about Southern California…they too will experience massive outage issues potentially…STRONGER winds and LOWER humidity.

WE HAVEN’T EVEN HAD A FIRE YET! If that happens…which the odds are fairly high…it immediately turns into a dangerous life-threatening event with little info, or ways to get info (no power…no gas).

Finally…peak wind will be middle of the night [Wednesday night/early Thursday]. It’s not just about power…there are DOZENS of ways fires start and any fluke accident could set up many communities for a dangerous moment.

If we can get through this…the power might not come back on for a few DAYS in some areas after the fact (no strong winds) while they inspect lines. fire or not this story will continue for many days more.


4:19 a.m. PDT October 10:

Update from what’s going on in California with this fire weather/power outage emergency. We are right in the thick of it and it’s not over yet.

We had a VERY close call in a town called Moraga near the Bay Area overnight. Fire broke out near a nice suburb surrounded by open land…a true urban/wildland interface situation. It was dicey, scary and in the middle of the night…gusts were 35mph+ nearby and evacuations were door to door with no cell service and power shut off.  By the hard work of firefighters and perhaps the advantage of having roads and access the fire is mostly contained and a nightmare scenario has been avoided…for now.

From what we can tell this is an area with a planned power outage and it’s a reminder that a fire can start form dozens of different ways…not just power arcs. We don’t know cause, but since the power was shut off there it’s worth exploring other causes

Supplies are running really low in power outage areas…water, flashlights, generators etc. have been in short supply like a true disaster emergency situation.

Easily the biggest complaint is “It’s not windy at my house…the power should be back on” Gusts near the dams/hydropower/transmission lines though are VERY strong up to 52 mph so upstream impacts are creating downstream confusion

Observed wind speeds in California
Observed wind speeds in California early Thursday morning. Rob Carlmark.

In short…it’s ongoing…people are on edge…every stoplight is a four way stop with traffic issues…people have NO idea when power is coming back…it’s a big deal that is getting bigger today.

I do see the weather changing tonight for many…less wind but still dry so there is an end to this in the weather world…but the power thing…it’s going to be some time.

Power company may turn off electricity to 30,000 addresses in Southern California during wind event

SDG&E may suspend electrical service to some customers this week

SDG&E turn off power wind
SDG&E says the areas in yellow could experience public safety power outages during the wind event that will hit San Diego County on Thursday and Friday.(SDG&E map)

Pacific Gas and Electric in Northern California is not the only power company with plans to turn off the electricity to their customers. San Diego Gas and Electric said they may suspend electrical service to about 30,000 addresses during the wind event on Thursday and Friday of this week. Thinking that their power line infrastructure may not be robust enough to withstand the wind, they want to reduce their liability by de-energizing the power lines, rather than fully hardening their electrical distribution system.

SDG&E was one of the pioneers in turning off the power to their customers when the wind blows and has been doing it  for years. They floated the idea in July, 2009 after their power lines started three massive fires in 2007 , the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon Fires, that burned more than 198,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,500 homes, injured 40 firefighters, and caused two deaths.  The company figured up to 150,000 people could be affected by a proactive power outage in 2009.

SDG&E has been trying for the last 7 years to get their customers to pay $379 million the company incurred in claims from the deadly 2007 fires. They took litigation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled against them on October 7, 2019. After the verdict the company wrote in a news release,  “SDG&E has shown that the fires occurred due to circumstances beyond our control, but nevertheless the application to spread the costs through rates was denied.”

To be fair, SDG&E has taken steps to reduce the chances their power lines will start a fire during strong winds, such as replacing some wooden poles with metal poles. They have also put systems in place to deal with a fire before and after it starts, including making a large firefighting helicopter available beginning in 2010, hiring contract firefighters during extreme fire weather, and installing more than 100 weather stations on their power lines around Southern California.

System developed to shut off electricity to broken power line before it hits the ground

It can be done in less than 1.37 seconds

Power Line Shutoff System
SDG&E’s has developed a system that can shut off the electricity to a broken power line before it hits the ground. SDG&E graphic.

Some of the wildfires that have destroyed thousands of homes in California in the last two years were caused by broken power lines. A utility that supplies electricity to much of Southern California, San Diego Gas and Electric, has developed a system intended to cut off power to a falling power line before it hits the ground, therefore avoiding a possible ignition.

SDG&E’s research found that it takes 1.37 seconds for a broken conductor to hit the ground, for example, if a tree falls into the line or a vehicle hits a power pole. When the line contacts the ground sparks can ignite vegetation. The system is designed to detect a break and shut off the power before the clock hits 1.37 seconds — hopefully, avoiding what could become a dangerous wildfire.

In SDG&E’s video below, they describe the system beginning at 1:40.

If this actually is effective in the real world, it would be a very important method of preventing some wildfires caused by power lines.

Wildfire risk? There’s an app for that — in San Diego

Above: Southern California fires, October 2003. The smoke plumes rising from the fires. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their … Continue reading “Wildfire risk? There’s an app for that — in San Diego”

Above: Southern California fires, October 2003. The smoke plumes rising from the fires. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their south is the Roblar 2 Fire; Next is the Paradise Fire; Then the massive Cedar Fire, whose thick smoke is completely overshadowing the coastal city of San Diego; Finally, at the California-Mexico border is the Otay Fire. (A fire in Baja California is also visible.) NASA photo.

Firefighters in Southern California will soon be able to check their smartphones to monitor a fire’s behavior in real-time — and in some cases predict the future.

Fire agencies convened Friday in San Diego for a Wildfire Preparedness Summit hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric in conjunction with the San Diego Fire Foundation.

Weather stations around the region already record wind speed and humidity levels, vegetation maps document moisture and growth levels, and historical data already informs risk analysis. The utility provider has plans to combine all of those variables in a smartphone app that doubles as a predictive tool, the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper reported. 

The tool would compute scenarios in real time and better inform firefighters about resource needs and future fire behavior.

From the Union-Tribune’s report: 

“San Diego Gas & Electric owns and operates the largest weather utility network anywhere in the country,” said Brian D’Agostino, a meterologist for the utility who has overseen the weather networks construction which began eight years ago following the 2003 and 2007 firestorms that swept large parts of San Diego County.

“We run weather models and we’re getting to the point now that we’re taking all of this information and data and integrating it into world-class fire behavior models that have never been built before,” he said. “They are being built for the first time right here in San Diego.”

A developer working on the new smartphone app program said it is already semi-operational and should be refined for more widespread use before Santa Ana winds arrive in the fall.

The utility company’s efforts on the weather prediction front have made headlines in the past. Those weather stations — more than 170 in total — monitor every electrical circuit in SDG&E’s highest fire risk area, providing real-time readings of wind speed, humidity, and temperature every 10 minutes, Dave Geier, vice president of electric transmission and system engineering, wrote in a 2016 piece for The Energy Times.

The company in 2014 worked with the U.S. Forest Service, UCLA and the National Weather Service to develop another tool dubbed the “Santa Ana Wildfire Threat Index” for Southern California.

San Diego County, of course, has repeatedly been ground-zero for destructive and deadly wildfires. Among the most notable: the 2003 Cedar Fire and the 2007 With Creek Fire.

Utility equipment has been found to have ignited fires in the past, including during the 2017 firestorm. In turn, that has ignited a debate about fault and who should be held accountable to cover ensuing costs.

San Diego power company wants customers to pay 90% of wildfire costs

San Diego Gas and Electric wants to raise the rates their customers pay in order to cover the costs the utility incurred after the failure of their power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused … Continue reading “San Diego power company wants customers to pay 90% of wildfire costs”

San Diego Gas and Electric wants to raise the rates their customers pay in order to cover the costs the utility incurred after the failure of their power lines caused the Witch Creek, Guejito, and Rice Canyon fires in 2007. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in southern California, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations. The Witch Creek Fire which started near Santa Ysabel burned 197,990 acres.

SDG&E still owes $421 million resulting from legal settlements that were not covered by their insurance. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that on Friday the company asked for permission to have their customers pay 90 percent, or $379 million, of the remaining costs from the fires. The stockholders would pay $42 million.

In the years since the 2007 fires caused by SDG&E’s powerlines, the company has replaced a small percentage of wooden poles with steel poles, stepped up tree trimming programs near power lines, installed over 100 weather monitoring stations, staged private firefighters in areas with extreme fire danger, made a Type 1 helicopter available to firefighters for two years, and initiated a program to proactively shut off power to areas if they feel wind and weather conditions could cause their lines to fail and ignite fires.

The program of turning off power to prevent fires, has been controversial.

From the Times of San Diego in 2014:

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, a fierce critic of SDG&E who represents East County communities, asked the utility to shut off electricity only as a last resort.

“I’m deeply concerned about any shutoffs because they pose risks to property and life in an emergency, especially in areas where firefighters need access to well water,” Jacob said. “I urge the utility to cut power only as a last resort and only if there’s an actual system failure that could ignite a wildfire.”

Electrical company contractors agree to pay $370 million for San Diego County fires

Two companies that performed work for San Diego Gas and Electric agreed to pay a total of $370 million for their roles in the 2007 Witch Creek and Guejito fires in San Diego County. Davey Tree Expert Company was a contractor doing hazard reduction for SDG&E, trimming trees near power lines. A fallen sycamore branch is … Continue reading “Electrical company contractors agree to pay $370 million for San Diego County fires”

Two companies that performed work for San Diego Gas and Electric agreed to pay a total of $370 million for their roles in the 2007 Witch Creek and Guejito fires in San Diego County. Davey Tree Expert Company was a contractor doing hazard reduction for SDG&E, trimming trees near power lines. A fallen sycamore branch is believed to have started the Guejito fire near Fallbrook, Californina.

PAR Electrical replaced and modified a power pole that has been linked to the ignition of the 198,000-acre Witch Creek fire which started near Santa Ysabel during 100 mph Santa Ana winds. The fires destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, and caused massive evacuations.

The $370 will be paid to SDG&E which has already agreed to pay $686 million to insurance companies that paid claims to their customers for the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires. The company also agreed in a 2010 settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission to pay the state of California $14.8 million for the three fires. The Commission accused SDG&E of obstructing their investigation of the cause of the fires. According to the San Diego Union, in the settlement the company admitted that it didn’t give investigators the information they asked for and nor did it let its workers talk to the investigators, as required by law.