PG&E town hall on frequent power outages in Bennett Valley cut short by power outage



(re-printed here by permission of the Press Democrat)

Original Article hosted here.

January 26, 2023


In the sudden darkness, phone flashlights turned on and laughter spread through the roughly 70-person crowd.

It was an abrupt and poetic end to the Tuesday night town hall meeting at the Bennett Valley Grange organized by utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to address concerns about growing power outages in the Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Residents of the rural area are no strangers to power failures, but the frequency of outages -- lasting anywhere from a few minutes up to almost a day -- has skyrocketed over the past year especially, interrupting daily life to the increasing frustration of the more than 800 households often affected.

The Tuesday evening outage, which affected 845 customers and ultimately lasted less than an hour, was Jeremy Nichols’ 19th in 12 months, he wrote me in a Wednesday morning email. Another resident, Bill Finklestein, said his Tesla Powerwall battery system logged 61 outages over two years, including seven in the first half of December.

One attendee told PG&E staff at the meeting that he’d had 28 in the past year, with only four of them planned and accompanied by advance notice.

"Most products and services that I use in my life have actually gotten better over 20 years, not worse,” said Craig Harrison, a member of the Bennett Valley Community Association, to kick off the meeting. 

“Without a reliable supply of electricity, our homes can quickly become uninhabitable. No electricity means no computer, no Wi-Fi, your refrigerator doesn't work.”

“No water,” people in the audience called out, a reference to the fact that many rely on well pumps that don’t work without electricity.

“Life gets very primitive,” Harrison said.

“There's no doubt if I was in this room as a customer today, I would not be satisfied,” Ron Richardson, PG&E’s North Coast Region vice president, said to the crowd, which included County Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district covers Bennett Valley.

“To me, this is what I should be doing, coming out and seeing you face to face.”

Richardson was one of seven PG&E representatives from departments spanning local government affairs, vegetation management and field operations.

Flanked by poster boards detailing the area’s electric grid, planned improvements and customer resources, they talked through the context and causes behind what they acknowledged was unacceptable service, described solutions in the works and took questions from the eager audience.

Much of the discussion focused on PG&E’s new Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings, a wildfire prevention system the company rolled out systemwide in high fire risk areas in 2022 that’s in large part behind the recent uptick in power failures affecting Bennett Valley and other communities.

When enabled, if something like a branch strikes a power line, the system can automatically turn off power within one-tenth of a second.

“Basically, this is like a circuit breaker in your home; if some sort of fault occurs, that device operates,” said Dave Canny, PG&E’s director of Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings.

The program was a result of refining in the wake of the widespread and unpopular public safety power shutoffs that cut power to swaths of customers during severe weather. It’s been an effective tool in reducing fire risk, Canny said, pointing to a 65% decrease in ignitions last year.

But the flip side has been unexpected and unpredictable power disruptions that can be triggered by less hazardous weather, vegetation and other interference with the lines.

Turkeys and squirrel crossings came up a lot during the meeting.

And before power can be restored, PG&E crews must physically locate and inspect the problem -- a task that can be delayed by bad weather or nighttime hours.

“We saw a significant reduction in ignitions,” Canny said. “We also saw in some areas significant reliability impacts.”

Beyond frustration, concerns over the potential impacts on emergency service provision and resident safety have led advocacy groups and public officials in Sonoma County and other jurisdictions to push the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate the new system PG&E and other major electric utilities have started implementing.

PG&E representatives detailed engineering changes to improve the system, including dialing in when the settings are turned on and off based on daily forecast assessments to determine risk.

Other efforts include ramping up vegetation management, adding animal guards, sectionalizing lines so less people are affected by outages at a time and adding fault indicators, flashing lights to help crews quickly identify problem locations and get them back up and running sooner.

After four days PG&E spent surveying the area, that work is underway in Bennett Valley with hopes of completion by June.

More broadly, PG&E officials said they were working to reduce disruption from planned outages as well by bundling scheduled work and upgrading the notification process. Unlike updates about unplanned outages that come as texts, for example, notice about planned outages currently arrives via a U.S. Postal Service mail letter, a practice they said would soon change.

PG&E encouraged all residents to update their contact information with the company, noting that only half the customers at a previous community meeting had email addresses in the system.

A passionate Q&A followed the hour of presentations. Residents came with tough questions about accountability and measuring progress and concerns about broader problems with Bennett Valley’s aging power infrastructure.

A few asked about the possibility of undergrounding as a better and perhaps more cost-effective alternative for the area. At $3 million per mile, PG&E representatives said it wasn’t and that the community isn’t currently a target for that work, much to the disappointment of those subject to the utility’s extensive advertising campaign. STORIES

Most of all, short of consistent reliable power, what people wanted most was information.

“People would be much happier if they knew what happened every time the power goes out,” one woman said. “A lot of the upset feelings that are happening here is because we never know what the hell is going on. ... If we knew, we’d feel better.”

One graph projected during the presentation showed that 56% of outages in 2022 were due to maintenance. Of the unplanned outages, 8% were caused by vegetation or animals, 11% by equipment and 24% were undetermined.

She and others suggested adding the cause of each outage to the automated notifications customers receive and keeping a publicly accessible log on the outage map or elsewhere, something company officials promised to look into incorporating.

In the meantime, the Bennett Valley Community Association is starting a project to track outages on its website (, president Moira Jacobs said.

At 7:45 p.m., minutes before the meeting’s scheduled end, the power went out. PG&E staff stuck around, circling the room to jot down attendees’ additional questions and contact information and talking with those who remained.

Residents filed out pretty quickly, commiserating with each other on the way and discussing how they’d prepare dinner without electricity that night.

PG&E’s Richardson told me the outage was not related to the enhanced power line safety settings, which are currently turned off given the wet winter weather. Two crew members were already almost on site to get things back up and running.

“It’s old equipment at the end of the day,” he said.

The mood among residents was generally appreciative if not entirely satisfied. They were glad for the opportunity to talk directly with so many in charge of providing their power, though keenly aware of the questions that remained unanswered.

“Overall, it’s hit or miss. I think they’re earnestly addressing the fire issues, but the outage issue remains elusive, and I don’t feel we have satisfaction on it,” Chris Gralapp told me.

“I’m divided. I appreciate them showing up, but ... case in point,” she said gesturing into the darkness.

“In Your Corner” is a column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.