Lights Out Bennett Valley

By Chris Gralapp

The power outage problems plaguing Bennett Valley prompted an invitation by BVCA and the BV Grange for PG&E to come by and address the issue at a live town hall event on January 24. Many of us attended, and the Grange Hall was packed, as the seven representatives from the utility presented their perspectives of the problems, and possible solutions that are underway.

Power failures are nothing new, as we discussed in the last issue of the Voice. PG&E has acknowledged the problem, and admitted they have work to do to rectify the situation. They came well prepared to broach the topics at hand, with a detailed PowerPoint presentation, placards and maps.

The room had a lively feel. The first presenter was BVCA Board member Craig Harrison, who laid out the sentiments of many when he described the power outage experience: “…life gets very primitive very fast”. Because we depend on electrically powered wells for our water supply, we are especially vulnerable. He suggested that because so many of us have to resort to expensive supplemental backup power systems, that the utility should consider reimbursement for equipment purchases and the many hours of shutdown we have endured, while other localities remain unaffected. He was loudly applauded for his remarks. Also in attendance were two Press Democrat folks, reporter Marisa Endicott and Kent Porter, PD photographer. Between them, they captured the details of the meeting in a fine article.

PG&E’s North Coast Region Vice President Ron Richardson said that the utility is starting more face-to-face interactions with the public, and this event at the Grange was one of the first. The number one goal for them now is to mitigate fire risk, reasonable in the wake of the devastating fires in recent years. The second goal is to bring our service up to the best possible working order.

The team described causes of the outages, most notably the recently implemented Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS), a system which responds to perturbations on the power lines and causes the power to shut off in high-risk fire zones. This EPSS system is very sensitive, however, and even though it does its job when a tree branch hits a line, it also triggers when wildlife (turkeys!) impact it, or when a stiff wind blows. Certain of these equipment upgrades have proven notoriously troublesome, and the utility is working to track them down more efficiently via flashing ‘fault indicators’.

Also, they are ‘sectionalizing’ the grid in a more fine-grained way, so that when an outage does strike, fewer residents will be affected. We were told that Bennett Valley is a priority area for further upgrades and the utility will double down on lasting repairs and dedicated vegetation management to clear the lines of potential damage. They will bundle line work so that interruptions for repairs are minimized. 56% of outages in 2022 were due to maintenance. Undergrounding will not happen in Bennett Valley.

The audience came prepared with really good cogent questions, seeking transparency and measuring sticks so we will know when PG&E has met its milestones. The PG&E reps hope that the bulk of the work will be completed by the end of June.

A neighbor remarked that what we want most, besides a reliable power supply, is information—where is the outage, what caused it, and how long will it last? Feedback is important, as we are not only literally in the dark, but figuratively as well. 

Another neighbor mentioned that the maps they showed us don’t mesh with the CalFire maps that identify hazard risk—why are they different?

A man in the audience commented about how the environmental push to phase out fossil fuels and promote electric vehicles will surely put further strain on the grid—will we have the capacity for this change? It remains to be seen.

As the meeting was nearing the end of its 2-hour time slot—the power went out! As if on cue. A roar went up from the crowd, with much mirth, consternation and head shaking at the perfect irony of the situation.  800+ homes lost power that night for about 45 minutes. Cell phone lights flashed on as we mingled, and finally found our way out into the very dark night.

BVCA Power Outage Widget  - (Bookmark this and fill out every time you'd like to record feedback for any power issue)

PG&E Slide Deck  from Town Hall

Press Democrat Article