Who’s Got the Power?

PSPS – Fire? You loser. No fire? You still lose.

Story: David Bolling

Stuart Teitelbaum was standing in his empty Homegrown Bagel shop handing out the remains of his bagel inventory to anyone who happened by. It was October 11 and Teitelbaum had already lost something on the order of $1,000 worth of lox, cheeses, and other bagel dressings when his coolers and his livelihood suffered what one Santa Rosa bureaucrat has referred to as a“de-energization event.” PG&E, the energy utility behind the power loss, later came up with an even more sanitized term, “Public Safety Power Shutoff,” or PSPS, an acronym some cynical citizens immediately modified to read, “PSBS.”

For Teitelbaum, the precautionary outage was more than inconvenience, it was a sizable financial loss, both for him and for his employees, as well as to the countless customers who consider Homegrown Bagels a second home.

That same day, a few blocks away, Laura Havlek was behind the counter of Sign of the Bear, the kitchen supply store revered by locals and tourists alike for its bulging inventory. The doors were open but the lights were off, and shoppers shuffled slowly through the darkened, crowded aisles, searching for things they apparently couldn’t do without even on a de-energized, PSPS day.

Havlek was processing sales with an old-school receipt book, and recording credit card numbers by hand.

“We’re old and we remember how to write things,” she laughed, as customers stood in line. “We’re doing business with the power of the pen.” With that, Havlek held up a functional rotary dial telephone.

But Sign of the Bear was the exception to the Power Shutoff rule. All around the Plaza, and all around the town, store after store, restaurant after restaurant was closed, the two notable exceptions being the Plaza’s two taverns, Steiner’s and Town Square. At Town Square, bartender Cathy Sanchez poured beer for some regulars, explaining, “We still have ice, and batteries for the flashlights,” while a camera crew from KTVU interviewed her.

Despite the lightless heroics and goodwill, a wave of angry protest poured forth in news outlets and social media, accusing PG&E of miserable management of its shutoff plans and public communication.

But that was just the beginning of an accelerating crisis, because when the Kincade Fire exploded into life October 23, PG&E pulled the plug on much of Sonoma County. As the fire progressed, some Santa Rosa neighborhoods that still had power were issued mandatory evacuations, resulting in the irony of Santa Rosa residents taking refuge in Kenwood and Glen Ellen with residents who had no power.

A mistaken report that Oakmont was being evacuated sent several residents fleeing with memories of the 2017 inferno, and close to 200 residents of Oakmont Gardens, an assisted living facility, went through a voluntary evacuation, with several dozen being transferred to other facilities.

People were not the only ones evacuated. Julie Atwood, founder of HALTER—the large animal rescue and training facility in Glen Ellen, kept busy during the entire fire episode helping to shelter horses and other livestock, while facilitating efforts to expand shelter resources for family pets.

National news coverage, which routinely conflates all of Sonoma County’s 1,768 square miles into the town of Sonoma, gave the impression that Sonoma, the town, was once again on fire. Cancellations of weddings and winery events escalated, enhanced by an image that went viral on social media, showing a bride and groom standing in a vineyard, wearing N95 face masks and backlit by what appears to be a fire-reddened sky that is actually a sunset.

Small business owners like Teitelbaum and Glen Ellen Grocery owner Sonia Baweja lack the resources to survive sustained power outages. After the October 8-9 power outage, Baweja bought a small generator to power seven freezers, but still lost all her deli meats, cheeses, and other perishables, along with all the ice cream during the Kincade Fire PSPS.

Like many, if not most, small business owners with perishable food, the grocery’s insurance did not cover the loss that Baweja estimated in the many thousands of dollars.

All of which means that when the lights went off, Sonoma Valley woke up to a new PSPS reality, in which businesses and homes can be shut down or severely compromised whenever the power company perceives a threat to either public safety or private profit. In short, the Valley of the Moon’s structural and economic security can be threatened not only by actual fire, but even by fires that never happen.

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board has initiated an online survey of county businesses to better understand the full impact of PSPS economic losses. A study contracted by the county with Moody’s Analytics to explore financial impacts of the power shutoffs, concluded that losses from a single, 24-hour PSPS could be as high as $35 million. The Kincade Fire PSPS lasted at least five days in many parts of the county, signaling potential business losses into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But business losses don’t necessarily include lost wages of employees who can’t report to work, the cost of rescheduling lives when schools are closed and kids are stuck at home, and the loss of revenue that would have come into the county by tourists who stay away because of exaggerated media reports.

Some PG&E critics are demanding the utility be taken over by a municipal consortium—that would include the City of Sonoma—in hopes public ownership will make it more responsive to oversight. PG&E has long been criticized for putting stockholder dividends above public safety. But whatever the ultimate corporate fate of the country becomes, California is still stuck with the state’s largest utility having a shockingly deficient record of infrastructure maintenance.
One of 22 fire prevention and power management bills, recently signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, requires power companies to prepare reports on their brush removal and tree-trimming efforts for submission to a branch of the California Public Utilities Commission to substantiate that the utility is fulfilling its legal obligation and that it will swiftly correct deficiencies.

When a legislative analysis of the bill was completed, it was learned that, as of September, the heart of the fire season, PG&E had completed just 30 percent of its vegetation removal for the entire year.

Significant breakthroughs in power line inspection, using drones and sophisticated video analysis algorithms, could dramatically speed the tedious inspections required of power lines after heavy wind events.

These and other technology improvements will become increasingly mainstream as pressure builds for increased fire safety, and security from the dreaded PSPS.