California Utility Shuts Off Customers' Power to Reduce Wildfire Risk

One of California's largest utilities recently shut off power for about 60,000 of its customers in an effort to reduce the risk of starting a wild fire.

Last week, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) informed customers located in areas of northern California that it would shut off electricity access amid high winds in the area. The decision was made shortly after California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (also known as Cal Fire) released findings that a 2017 wildfire in the state was caused by "sagging power lines coming into contact during heavy winds."

For businesses and other large energy users in the state, this measure is a sign of two new developments. The first is that utilities are taking proactive measures to mitigate the risk of wildfires, which have devastated the state in recent years and resulted in damaged property and prolonged power outages. The 2017 fire that started after heavy winds caused power lines to come into contact caused four deaths and destroyed 264 structures across nearly 10K acres of land in the state, according to Cal Fire. The planned outage can be seen as a proactive measure to prevent similar damage to the region.

At the same time, California businesses will naturally wonder if temporary loss of power will be part of their new reality going forward. PG&E implemented the outage late on the evening of Sunday, October 14, and restored power to all customers by Tuesday, October 16. While the shutoff was a valuable measure to prevent a significant risk in the region, it still created the same operational and production challenges that businesses face during a grid outage on a Monday. As wildfire risk and intensity in the state increase, California’s utilities may rely on these kinds of proactive measures more frequently going forward.

If that becomes the case, behind-the-meter solar PV and energy storage technology could become increasingly valuable in the state—particularly for those that need constant access to power to maintain operations and production. This was the case for Establishment Labs, a medical manufacturer with facilities in Costa Rica. With frequent grid outages in the region threatening production, Establishment Labs integrated 276 KW of solar PV and 500 KW/1MWh of lithium-ion battery storage—a system modeled specifically to power critical equipment needed to maintain product quality. When a grid outage knocked out power to 1.4 million customers in the region for several hours last year, Establishment Labs relied on DER optimization software to transition its facility’s load onto the solar-plus-storage system automatically when the outage occurred. As a result, the company was able to keep its mission-critical equipment operational and avoid lost production.

A power outage has the same effect on energy consumers whether it was planned or unplanned. Amid growing uncertainty about the challenges on the grid, California’s businesses are likely to start thinking about whether they will be able to respond.

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Authored By Colin Neagle

Colin is a marketing manager for Enel X North America and editor-in-chief of the EnergySMART blog.

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