The Back Story: PG&E Lacks Accountability for Faulty Equipment Failures Leaving 100,000 San José Residents in the Dark
In a frustrating and menacing replay of August 2020, fears of heat-induced rolling blackouts resulting from insufficient load capacity statewide did not materialize this week, but nearly 100,000 San José residents were left in the dark anyway. That is, San José residents suffered from the failure of PG & E’s local distribution infrastructure — primarily blown transformers. These failures shut down power to more than 30,000 households. Two hospitals — Valley Medical Center and O’Connor — remained without power for several hours. In some East San José neighborhoods — such in the retail area around Tully and King — residents reported that the power outages also took down cellular networks operated by AT&T, rendering cellular customers helpless to make a phone call or send a text to seek assistance.
This is unacceptable. These infrastructure failures pose life-threatening risks to our most vulnerable, particularly the elderly and medically frail, some of whom rely upon ventilators and other electrically-powered medical equipment. My office has received numerous complaints expressing fear and frustration. Many family members and neighbors found themselves dropping everything to assist someone made more vulnerable in the heat by a power outage.
In numerous California communities that routinely face three-digit temperatures, such as Sacramento, Fresno, and Bakersfield — the grid operates through heat waves. Lights (and air conditioners and ventilators) stay on. Cell phones continue to transmit and receive calls.
Not so in San José. Preventative capital replacement and maintenance does not appear to be occurring at a sufficient rate. According to one South Bay solar industry executive quoted in last year’s New York Times, “My experience…is they just wait until the neighborhood is overloaded and then the transformer blows up.”
We need to better understand why these failures disproportionately afflict PG&E’s operations in San José. More importantly, we need to get them fixed — whether PG&E does so voluntarily, or under judicial or regulatory mandate. We can no longer merely hope that PG&E will live up to its obligation to San José ratepayers.
In particular, questions arise as to whether PG&E’s publicly articulated capital repair and replacement plans adequately prioritize the safety of urban ratepayers. PG&E has announced plans for tens of billions of ratepayer investment in infrastructure in rural areas, primarily for undergrounding of ten thousand miles of transmission lines, which will likely take decades and consume (at the current rate of undergrounding) more than $37 billion in ratepayer dollars. The company trumpets that it will save some small fraction of their $1.98 billion annual vegetation management budget to underground roughly 8% of their lines, but the annual cost of undergrounding will still dwarf the marginal savings. Experts and ratepayer advocates have questioned the wisdom of the ambitious undergrounding plan, worrying that it will divert scarce ratepayer dollars from the more mundane (but less headline-grabbing) safety maintenance and capital replacement that could be accomplished at a lower cost, with greater safety impact.
To PG&E’s credit, their Chief Executive Officer, Patti Poppe, called me yesterday to commit to working with City officials in the weeks ahead to craft a capital repair and replacement plan that meets San José’s safety needs. After the August 2020 power outages, PG&E represented that they replaced hundreds of aging transformers in San José. I take Ms. Poppe at her word, and I also trust that City staff will work collaboratively with PG&E to identify our safety priorities and push for solutions.
Nonetheless, in light of the company’s continued struggle to adequately maintain its distribution infrastructure, the City can no longer wait, watch, and hope. If a sufficiently compelling plan for infrastructure replacement and upgrades does not emerge in the coming weeks, we must take action before whatever body — PUC, Court, or legislature — that can provide relief and protection to 1 million San Joséans. If a satisfactory capital expenditure plan does not emerge by October 31st, the City Attorney and City Manager should provide legal options for the City to act quickly to seek regulatory or judicial mandates for long-overdue preventative safety investment.
I submitted a memorandum to the City Council that urges the City Manager and staff to meet with PG&E to ensure that they prioritize critical local power distribution needs and by October 31st. In parallel with those discussions, the City Manager should report to Council what, if anything, the City can do to require telecommunications service providers to bolster the resilience of their power supplies, to keep cell towers operational during extended blackouts. You can expect Council committee action next week, and hopefully, we can all expect safer and more resilient grid infrastructure thereafter.