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Reliability during power shutoff events

In the middle of October, we received many calls and questions about PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs that affected a great deal of the state of California. The two primary questions revolved around why we weren’t affected by the PSPS events and the “real” reasons for the shutoffs.

Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative buys its power from the federal government through the Western Area Power Administration, through jointly owned power projects with the Northern California Power Agency, through its own projects on the system, and through its connection with the Nevada grid.

Our connection to the west is through 60,000-volt sub-transmission lines that come to us through the Feather River Canyon from the Caribou powerhouses run by PG&E.

We don’t buy from PG&E, but our normal supply is wheeled to us through their system.

If the Caribou powerhouse is cut off from the main PG&E system, PG&E can carry part of our load as well as their Quincy load.

If the lines from Caribou to Quincy go down, we have the ability to carry most, if not all, of the cooperative’s members by using our own generators, switching our feed to the Nevada grid, and with the cooperation of the three prisons on our system, using their generators.

That’s why our members generally enjoy more reliable service than PG&E’s customers to the west of us.

Which brings us to the PSPS. The major utilities in California have all been involved with major fires started in connection with their power grids. Sometimes it has been their fault, and sometimes not.

Due to a court case some time ago, the state’s constitution was interpreted so that all electric utilities are held to a strict liability standard. That means the utility is to blame even if the incident isn’t directly the utility’s fault. For example, if someone cuts a tree that falls into our lines because they didn’t look up first, we can still be held liable.

Sometimes it is the utility’s fault. PG&E has admitted liability for the Camp Fire, but there are other fires associated with the utility grid that have nothing to do with how the utility behaved.

As a response to these fires, the California Public Utilities Commission and the state legislature have passed rules and laws that require utilities to set conditions on when they should de-energize their system to prevent catastrophes like the state experienced in recent years. Some utilities are taking a broad stroke on this.

Which brings us to the Plumas-Sierra system. Plumas-Sierra has been on a 25-year all-out campaign to improve our right-of-way maintenance, removing thousands of overcrowded trees that were threatening our lines.

It has not been cheap, but it has paid off in better reliability, better relationships with the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies, and reduced risk of fires.

It’s been a sustained campaign by our operations staff, backed by your board of directors. We have even successfully worked to get state law changed so we have the right to access private property when trees on private land threaten our system.

When the management and board of PSREC analyzed when we should turn off our system due to weather conditions, we made the decision to only disconnect our system during extreme weather events.

This draft decision was shared with the membership at the annual meeting and received strong support.

This has been the subject of a great deal of discussion inside the utility business. You normally don’t have to worry about the inner workings of the business because you have the cooperative for that, but in this case it’s good to share how we got here.

PSREC has been in discussions with the other utilities around us, including Truckee Donner PUD, Liberty Utilities, NV Energy and others. We all serve the mountains, and due to the snow we receive, we have all built our systems to a heavy-duty standard.

NV Energy adopted a PSPS standard that includes the potential for power shutoffs, but its power shutoffs would be rare.

Given that we’ve built our system to the same standard, and we’ve been grooming our rights-of-way for decades to a high standard, we have set a similar shutoff threshold. This seems like the prudent course of action.

Most fires are not caused by power, and it’s tough to fight a fire — especially at the initial small stage of a fire — without water. In our region, the vast majority of our water comes from wells.

The last puzzle piece is the availability of linemen to patrol our lines after a PSPS. PG&E and other utilities will not turn power back on to a region until they can inspect each pole.

In the case of our connection to Nevada, it is relatively quick and easy to patrol the NV lines from Marble Hot Springs to Loyalton and then to Truckee (the route of the lines).

NV, Liberty and PSREC cooperate on inspecting lines in the hopefully rare case that a PSPS is implemented. That would make the difference between a PSPS being a few hours of outage on our electric grid, and it being several days of outage for the larger utilities.

PSREC’s crews work year-round to prevent outages and prepare for winter storms. Being prepared for an emergency and knowing what to do during an outage are vital for personal safety and quick restoration of power.

Equip your home with a power outage kit. If someone in your home depends on electric-powered, life-sustaining equipment, make a plan for backup power. Please install surge protectors on sensitive electronics and appliances. Buy surge protectors that have a warranty for your connected load.

Once we get to winter and the storms hit, if your lights start to flicker, turn off and unplug sensitive electronic equipment immediately, and reduce any unnecessary load.

For more information on outage preparedness and safety, visit www.psrec.coop. To receive updates on major, systemwide outages via text message, text “PSREC” to 800-555-2207.

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