Just days after the Emerald Hills residents called out PG&E for ongoing power outages, the company held a community meeting to address concerns and attempt to rebuild tenuous customer relations.
In the Aug. 2 meeting, PG&E representatives, including Vice President for the Bay Area region Aaron Johnson, Public Safety Specialist Frank Fraone and Local Government Affairs liaison Bill Chang, apologized to residents for repeated blackouts and discussed steps towards repairing the system.
“I just want to start by saying that I don't think our service has met your expectations over the last several weeks,” Johnson said. “We're working really hard right now to improve that.”
In addition to sustaining “damage related to the Edgewood Fire,” Johnson said that the local electric grid and equipment had been under increased strain from high temperatures, causing a series of unplanned outages.
One resident, Rochelle Abrams, who was in attendance, said that this was “the first time [PG&E has] admitted that equipment was damaged.”
“I don't excuse them from any liability for their part in some of the fires that have occurred, but I feel as if they are not the only ones to blame,” she added.
The Edgewood Fire was just the beginning for Abrams, who lives with her elderly and medically dependent parents. In the three weeks following the blaze, she counted seven more power outages—and she’s hardly the only one. Roughly 1,137 PG&E customers in the area experienced repeated power outages in the last two months, which caused disruptions of everything from medical treatments and childcare to remote working and food preparation.
On July 28, residents received an email from Johnson inviting them to a 1.5-hour “Emerald Lake Hills Wildfire Safety Webinar.”
“We at PG&E recognize the frustration and hardship that power outages have caused the Emerald Lake Hills community,” Johnson wrote.
At the meeting, which took place over Zoom, PG&E representatives said that the outages were the result of several main factors.
During and in the immediate aftermath of the wildfire, PG&E workers were unable to access the damaged equipment as CalFire worked to fight and then investigate the cause of the blaze. Secondly, PG&E had increased the sensitivity of its power line safety settings in “wildfire prone areas” like Emerald Hills, allowing shutoffs to be more easily triggered by heat and other disruptions. Lastly, the company had reconfigured its grid to accommodate customers while working on repairs.
During an hour-long Q&A session, representatives answered customers’ questions about everything from solar and back-up batteries to undergrounding of electrical lines and submitting claims for damaged items.
The company also said that it expected to initiate "one final outage” to complete its repair work on the damaged equipment. The outage shouldn’t last more than a few minutes, half an hour at the most, Johnson said, and was scheduled for 8 p.m. on Aug. 27.
Still, some residents were hesitant to trust the company’s intentions.
Because the meeting was held over Zoom, Abrams said, “We had no ability to see how many people or who was there. We had no ability to see the questions that were posed by others or to even know if they addressed those questions. Our only method of communication with them was via the chat box. So, I feel like they told us what they wanted us to hear.”
Since the meeting, Abrams has experienced two additional power outages—a 3-hour blackout on Aug. 16 and another 30-minute outage the following day.
The first blackout affected an estimated 975 and was the result of "heat-related equipment failure caused by stress on the grid as air conditioning use spiked due to high temperatures," according to PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado. Wednesday's shorter outage happened when PG&E moved 1,200 customers from the central electric system onto generators temporarily. Tostado added that generators would be used through the evening of Aug. 27, at which point customers will be returned to the grid.
Resident Lori McBride described disruptive noise from generators at night and sudden power outages during the day. She’s worried that blackouts might disrupt her online teaching schedule.
“I pray there's no outage this morning when I'm teaching a Kaiser class,” she wrote in an email.
Like some of their neighbors, McBride and Abrams are starting to lose patience. The two most recent outages happened without warning or explanation from PG&E, according to Abrams.
“They’re either being more honest or less, and it’s really hard to tell,” she said.