'A mosquito must've landed on a power line': Why power keeps shutting off in CA

ByRenee Koury KGO logo
Saturday, August 19, 2023
Power keeps going out as PG&E tries not to spark another wildfire
In the East Bay, residents say PG&E's new power line sensor system is too sensitive, causing constant power outages.

LAFAYETTE, Calif. (KGO) -- As California braces for the peak of wildfire season, PG&E is switching strategies to avoid sparking another blaze. The utility has focused less on tree trimming and more on circuit breakers that cut power to a possibly damaged power line. But in the East Bay, residents say the system is too sensitive, causing constant power outages.

Folks just want answers from PG&E and the utility says it's all about wildfire safety. PG&E is using enhanced safety sensors that de-energize a power line in less than one second if something hits the wire -- like a tree branch. But locals say it keeps shutting their power for no apparent reason. The running joke? "A mosquito must've landed on a power line."

MORE: PG&E CEO proposes using electric cars to send power back to grid to prevent blackouts

Karen Snow woke up to the telltale sound of a power generator down the street.

"I hear my neighbor's generator down the hill and I'm like, 'Ugh,'" Snow said. "Here we go. Here we go again. Power's out."

It was yet another power outage in her Lafayette neighborhood.

The power keeps going out at Richard Welty's home too.

MORE: Concerns raised as PG&E cuts tree-trimming program for wildfire prevention

"In a period of eight days, it was off three different times," he said. "And nine times in about a month and a half or two months. It's unacceptable."

Steve Lovell lost count of outages that began in early July.

"It just interrupts your entire day," Lovell said. "And I wait around and it's like, well, is it gonna come on, is it gonna come on? And you don't know."

"So there's been absolutely no communication to say, hey, we're sorry, your power went out, we want to tell you why," Snow said.

MORE: PG&E, Elon Musk brainstorm ways to meet growing electricity needs

PG&E says it's trying to prevent wildfires in high risk fire zones, like the woodsy areas of Contra Costa County.

It cut back on tree trimming but enhanced its "power line safety settings," or EPSS.

If something like a tree branch hits a power line, sensors instantly cut power to the wire, preventing a potential wildfire, especially on hot windy days.

But... "It's not a hot day, there's no wind..." Snow said.

The summer has been mild. Residents say sensors seem to shut their power for no reason.

MORE: CA receives $67.5 million to modernize power grid, help avoid rolling blackouts

"If anything bumps it, including just a bird flying into it, it turns the power off. So I think that's what's happening now," said Welty.

"That was the joke initially, like, 'What, did a mosquito hit the wire?' I mean, what's going on here?" said Snow.

PG&E says it's adjusting the sensors but didn't say if it found any real damage to power lines to warrant the outages.

Safety sensors now control power flow to 1.8 million households across Northern California.

MORE: California is less likely to experience rolling blackouts in 2023, officials say

Last weekend it cut power to 8,000 Danville residents for six hours overnight.

Katy Morsony of The Utility Reform Network says PG&E should insulate power lines instead.

"This is supposed to prevent ignitions from occurring, but it's a major inconvenience on customers. And it also can be a safety issue for people that rely on their electricity for medical devices," she said.

But PG&E says the sensor program is working. Power line ignitions dropped 68% last year.

Still, a PG&E report shows outages went up 44% last year, and lasted 71% longer compared to a five-year average.

MORE: Despite recent explosions, experts say San Francisco's underground power lines are safe

PG&E tells 7 On Your Side: "The number of outages residents in this area are experiencing is unacceptable. While we are doing everything we can to improve reliability, having the power turn off at the first sign of a hazard is preventing potential wildfires."

Residents say strengthen power lines, don't shut them off.

"The frustration just builds, right? And you just become too. like, I really have no patience for this anymore," Snow said.

PG&E has agreed to meet next Tuesday with residents of Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda and others who have experienced repeated power outages. They promise to answer all your questions about what's causing the outages and what it's doing to prevent unnecessary interruptions.

Customers who have been affected by the recent power outages can meet with PG&E in person on Tuesday, August 22 from 5 - 7 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Center 3780 Mount Diablo Blvd.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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