Why Does Bennett Valley Lose Power So Often?

by Craig S. Harrison

During the twenty years I have lived in Bennett Valley, abrupt electric outages have been a fact of life. Recently the frequency of forced outages has greatly increased. A Powerwall home battery system in Woodside recorded 61 outages during 2021 and 2022. In late September we installed a battery system at our Sonoma Mountain Road home and suffered eight forced outages during the next three months. This is ridiculous. A reliable supply of electricity is essential to modern life and recognized in Public Utilities Code § 304 which states “Reliable electric service is of paramount importance to the safety, health, and comfort of the people of California.”

When electricity is unavailable there are no lights, WIFI, computers, or television. Food spoils. There is no water or heat because well pumps and electric fans for propane heating systems cannot function. The lives of anyone on life support equipment are jeopardized. Home workers cannot meet deadlines. Power surges associated with disruptions can destroy appliances and electronic equipment. We replaced an expensive septic pump after an outage. To normalize their lives in an area with terrible electric service, many residents have installed generators or home battery systems that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Recently the Bennett Valley Community Association asked PG&E for information about any outages in Bennett Valley that simultaneously affected twenty or more households. Specifically, we requested (1) reports of what was repaired; (2) any recommendations to prevent the problem from recurring; and (3) whether such prevention projects were implemented. PG&E refused to provide any such information. Instead, it sent a public relations blurb entitled “Service Reliability in Sonoma County” that claims the company is doing a great job. In mid-December, Marisa Endicott of the Press Democrat wrote an extensive article entitled Bennett Valley residents have been left in the dark over and over this year. A few days later, Robert Stephens, president of the BVCA, wrote to PG&E and asked the company to improve service in Bennett Valley. BVCA’s website asks residents to report the impact of power outages.

Bennett Valley’s substandard service likely began when the area was first electrified. In the late 1960s, the mother of BVCA vice president Chris Gralapp often wrote notes to teachers asking to excuse Chris from homework because of power failures. The equipment that serves Bennett Valley seems to be 60-80 years old, and little has ever been replaced or upgraded. We know of a power pole that PG&E deemed to be dangerous in 2010 that has never been replaced.

My annual payments to PG&E have quadrupled over twenty years, a period when the consumer price index has increased only 60%. None of that revenue seems to have been invested in local infrastructure. PG&E’s failure to maintain the electric distribution lines in Bennett Valley may reflect a companywide approach that neglects maintenance. One result of such neglect was PG&E’s $13.5 billion payment to settle claims that its decrepit transmission lines caused wildland fires. During my legal career, I represented for decades most of the nation’s largest electric utility companies on federal regulatory issues. PG&E’s management always seemed to me to be in the lowest tier of competence compared to its peers.

PG&E will meet with residents of Bennett Valley to discuss these issues on Tuesday, January 24, at 6 pm at the Bennett Valley Grange Hall. You can reserve space here. Company representatives may focus on its Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings that apparently trigger the shutdown of a circuit serving hundreds of homes whenever a power line detects the movements of a gray squirrel or a great horned owl. Changing the sensitivity of this system is a no-brainer. But that surely not the only problem in Bennett Valley. What will PG&E do to modernize our transmission system? Should some of our local powerlines be buried? Will PG&E install better equipment?

Finally, PG&E should reimburse residents of Bennett Valley for the costs of installing and maintaining generators and home battery systems. Can PG&E’s engineers implement software to cut off power at its CEO’s home whenever there are massive outages in Bennett Valley? We need unconventional measures to focus the company on our problems.