PG&E to upgrade all distribution power lines in fire-threat areas

photo of powerlines
Meghnath Dey/Staff
While campus community members support PG&E's efforts to implement automated power shut-off technology, some express concerns about potential side effects.

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PG&E has come under fire for its alleged role in igniting multiple wildfires across California. The company, according to court documents, has allegedly set off at least 31 wildfires, killed 113 Californians, and pleaded guilty to 84 manslaughter charges, in addition to other pending felony and misdemeanor counts.

PG&E announced April 7 that it will expand the use of a technology that quickly shuts off power if it detects a potential threat to the electric system, such as a fallen tree branch on a power line. Some campus community members have raised concerns regarding the impact of these automated power shut-offs while others recommend alternative solutions.

Launched as a pilot in July 2021, the Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings, or EPSS, technology will be expanded to all distribution power lines in high fire-threat areas this year, according to a PG&E release.

Steven Weissman, a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said it makes sense to add the additional protections. He said the utility company has to make it as safe as possible, adding that it needs to be “laser-focused” in finding ways to mitigate wildfire risks.

Weather conditions including high wind, high temperatures and low humidity impacted PG&E’s equipment and sparked wildfires, Weissman said.

Will Gorman, a graduate student researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said he supports PG&E’s efforts to use EPSS to prevent wildfires. He added that there is an opportunity to “reimagine” how electricity is used.

Gorman said that current distribution lines are expensive to maintain and expensive to make safe and suggested alternative energy systems that are more local.

“I really hope that we really consider other options of providing power to remote communities so that they are not so reliant on the vulnerable transmissions and distribution systems,” Gorman said.

Alexandra von Meier, an adjunct professor in campus’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, said there is a trade-off between the automated power shut-offs from EPSS and the risk of fire.

While von Meier said she is not personally concerned about an excess of power outages and that wildfire prevention must take priority, she is concerned for those who are more vulnerable.

According to von Meier, some lower-income households are poorly insulated, and as a result, the families who reside in them suffer the most during power outages. For these families, power shut-offs are both uncomfortable and have impacts on their health, she noted.

“There have been horrifying cases, such as in Texas where people froze to death during power outages. People can die of heatstroke if their air conditioning is out in a hot climate,” von Meier said.“We have to distinguish (the) electricity needs that are essential for health and safety, especially for the most vulnerable.”

Contact Victor Corona at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @victorcorona__.