PG&E prepares for fire season, expands enhanced powerline safety settings

With California’s growing wildfire risk, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) will expand its use of an advanced technology that quickly and automatically shuts off power within one-tenth of a second if a potential threat to the electric system, such as a tree branch falling into a powerline, is detected.

Launched as a pilot in July 2021, Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings (EPSS) will be expanded to all distribution powerlines in high fire-threat areas this year.

As of Dec. 31, 2021, these enhanced safety settings reduced California Public Utilities Commission-reportable ignitions by 80 percent on EPSS-enabled circuits in High Fire-Threat Districts (HFTDs) last year. This is compared to the prior three-year average across more than 11,500 HFTD miles.

“As we strive for our goal of zero utility-caused wildfires, we recognize a critical need to deploy these enhanced safety settings on our powerlines in the areas that face the greatest threat,” said Mark Quinlan, PG&E’s Vice President of Transmission and Distribution System Operations. “In tandem with the company’s other wildfire prevention efforts for 2022, including beginning to underground 10,000 miles of electric distribution powerlines and installing more weather stations, high-definition cameras and microgrids, the expansion of these advanced safety settings will help make our system safer for our customers.”

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This year, PG&E plans to expand the program across 25,500 HFTD distribution line miles  within the company’s service area and in select adjacent areas. Compared to Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which are a last resort when severe weather conditions such as high winds are forecast, EPSS is effective any time when extremely dry fuels make powerline faults more likely to spark a fire.

(Watch a video of ongoing testing of the safety settings at PG&E’s Applied Technology Services lab in San Ramon.)

Enhanced Customer Support

Although these new safety settings make the electric system safer, having the power turn off quickly and automatically results in customer outages. PG&E is working hard to reduce the outages and increase the resources available to affected customers. During the 2021 pilot, after optimizing the equipment and improving the efficiency of restoration processes, the average customer outage length on EPSS-enabled circuits decreased by 40 percent.

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Additional improvements to the program in 2022 will enable a more surgical approach to minimize the frequency and duration of outages and reduce the number of customers impacted. That includes being operationally flexible during wildfire season when it comes to enabling the enhanced safety settings circuits. PG&E is also bolstering communication and engagement efforts with potentially affected customers and communities in HFTDs and nearby areas during and after service interruptions. This will include automated outage alerts with improved estimated time of restoration information. Additional communications include newsletters, webinars, letters and emails; updating the EPSS page on our website; and providing information via social media sites such as Nextdoor and Facebook.

PG&E also has resources to help customers prepare for outages and stay safe. In 2022, changes to our programs include:

  • Increased funding and expansion of eligibility for the Generator Rebate Program, which is for customers who rely on well water, as well as for customers in our Medical Baseline Program and certain small businesses.
  • Removal of the low-income requirements for the Portable Battery Program, available for eligible customers in our Medical Baseline Program who live in high fire-threat areas.
  • The expansion of the Backup Power Transfer Meter, now being offered to all customers on EPSS-enabled circuits.

Additional actions include:

Before Wildfire Season: Engineering settings on devices on powerlines to ensure wildfire mitigation benefit and improved coordination amongst devices. Conducting preseason engagement with customers, media, agencies and additional stakeholders to proactively communicate the 2022 Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings expansion and available support. Performing system maintenance and vegetation management to make the electric system safer and improve reliability.

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During Wildfire Season: Engaging customers and communities by sharing information, resources and support through multiple channels; pre-staging critical customer solutions, such as temporary generation and auto-transfer switches at schools and hospitals; informing customers when circuits return to normal settings with the onset of saturating rain. Staffing up and preparing helicopters to respond quickly to outages when they occur and establishing a robust outage review process to address outage causes and mitigate future outages.

After Wildfire Season: Sharing key program takeaways from the year via progress reports, emails, website updates and social media; and incorporating lessons learned into future program plans.

For more information, please visit pge.com/epss.