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What PG&E Should Do

image credit: © Georgiy | Dreamstime.com

Recently we were at a holiday dinner party and a friend, who does not suffer small talk, asked in all seriousness, “What would you do now if you were the CEO at PG&E?”  There were a number of people there with some background in energy so there was a lot of hemming and hawing.  And lots of finger pointing about PG&E’s past misdeeds.  But still there was the serious question of, “What should PG&E do now?”  The financial settlements are starting to shake out and the political negotiations with the governor appear to be moving on, so that leaves the issue of what PG&E ought to be doing to actually provide electricity to its customers. I went home and pondered the problem all night.  Here are my thoughts:

First of all, PG&E needs a guiding principle.  That principle should guide its board, its executives, and its employees.  The principle should address what’s most important to its customers in today’s world.  I think that principle should be “resilience”.  PG&E’s customers deserve to know that the utility is doing all it can to stand by them during this time of wild climate change and associated catastrophes- whether wind or fire, sea level rise or earthquakes.  Resiliency includes planning to avoid problems, to mitigate problems, and to help customers when things go awry.  Resiliency is important not just for dire weather and infrastructure failures, but also to handle the major changes likely on the electrical system due to increased electric vehicles resulting from deep decarbonization, increased renewables, and increased customer independence – whether from municipalized cities or from commercial customers serving their own energy needs.  And, of course, a major part of resilience is understanding and protecting against safety hazards, both the ones that originate with generating electricity and the ones that come from the larger universe, including cybersecurity and terrorism.  If a utility isn’t resilient enough to withstand these challenges in the year 2020, then it’s simply not meeting the needs of its customers.

Resilience is a great guiding principle, but how to implement it?  Here are three steps that are a good start towards making PG&E resilient.

  1. Begin a massive undergrounding program.  Determine what areas of the transmission and distribution system are most vulnerable and which ones have the geography and infrastructure that could support undergrounding.  All potential climate change effects should be considered in this analysis.  For example, areas with high fire potential are logical regions to consider, but areas that are subject to high wind or tidal erosion may also need to be considered as distribution lines in these areas are subject to falling.  Those lines may need to be relocated as well as undergrounded.  The cost for undergrounding is high (at least twice the cost of a new above ground line and that’s all additional cost for a replacement line) but it’s cheaper than paying damages later for a whole city and it is clearly the better and safer alternative for the customers. It will take a lot of time and money to execute a large undergrounding program but it can be done.  It’s important to note that the disaster in Puerto Rico that resulted from the hurricane was not caused by a failure of the generating plants.  It was caused by a failure of transmission and distribution lines that could not withstand the wind.  And more than a year later many of these lines were still down and the island still had limited power.  That’s a clear lesson.  Other utilities both in the Midwest and in Florida have initiated increased undergrounding programs in order to strengthen their resiliency.  It’s time PG&E did so also.
  2.  Implement a program to use drones effectively to enforce safety codes. PG&E has acknowledged that it has not inspected many of its existing lines and that the connections on these various systems are vulnerable to failure that result in fires.  But to-date the PG&E response to this problem has been to estimate that it will take up to ten years to complete new comprehensive inspections and then make the corrections that are needed.  This is simply not acceptable. There are safety protocols and permissions, likely from the FAA among others, that need to be secured.  But again, this can be done.  A number of utilities and independents, including SDG&E and AES have reported pilot programs using drones to do inspections.   One way of using drones would be to send out a manager into the field to video each intersection of a distribution line, then send that data back to an office for review and analysis.  This avoids the time and risk of climbing poles and having backup personnel at each inspection, and it allows for faster analysis of the equipment, even allowing for the analysts to work evenings when it’s too dark to conduct inspections on-site without special lighting. 
  3. Encourage, rather than discourage, distributed energy resources.  For some time in the future, until PG&E really has a more robust system, it is likely that PG&E will continue to need to disconnect parts of its system during fire emergencies.  So far, however, these disconnected areas have been large and re-connecting has been slow and problematic.  The PG&E system needs the ability to turn off well-defined small areas and then turn them easily back on. (We call this “islanding” in the utility industry.)  PG&E has shown that it can turn off huge numbers of customers at once, but doing this only precisely as needed and then re-connecting the system quickly is harder.  Many communities, as well as a number of businesses and agencies want this ability to island themselves from the system.  Some have even installed their own generators (distributed energy resources) to provide this kind of backup.  For example, most hospitals have at least a backup generator and several military facilities in the state have microgrids that easily disconnect from the entire grid and operate independently.  But PG&E has discouraged these systems in the past.  It’s hard to get such generators interconnected; the tariffs don’t provide a benefit to the customer; and there is no systematic approach to easily design a microgrid within the larger PG&E electrical system.  It’s time to recognize the advantages of distributed generation, especially with associated microgrids.   It’s to the benefit of everyone on the grid to have the overall system be more resilient and less prone to outages.  In other parts of the country utilities are experimenting with battery storage systems in homes and controlled by the utility (Vermont) to provide power during winter cold storms.  Some systems have even been installed by commercial customers on the utility side of the meter so the utility can turn the generators on or off.  SDG&E built a microgrid out in Borrego Springs.  The whole community there can be separated from the larger grid and operate on the solar and storage facilities within the city.  

These steps won’t handle all of PG&E’s problems, but they would represent significant movement toward the new resilient utility that PG&E needs to be for the coming years.  And taken together they would provide evidence to the customers that PG&E is doing the right thing, the smart thing, the safe thing, and moving toward real resiliency.

Leah Bissonette's picture

Thank Leah for the Post!

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 10, 2020 6:38 am GMT

"It’s time to recognize the advantages of distributed generation, especially with associated microgrids.   It’s to the benefit of everyone on the grid to have the overall system be more resilient and less prone to outages."

Leah, what leads you to believe microgrids are less prone to outages? Microgrids have to be maintained just like regional grids do, and from an efficiency standpoint they're a disaster. Though they might offer added resiliency for residents of wealthy, gated communities, efficiencies of scale available to centralized generation plants give way to duplication of resources and maintenance, shuttling of generators on and off, and a significant overall increase in emissions.

Moreover, generating as much electricity as possible at one location permits reducing emissions en masse, to thousands of households at the same time.

Ask an electrical engineer: any added resiliency offered by microgrids comes at the expense of increased carbon emissions, safety, reliability, and cost.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 10, 2020 1:57 pm GMT

Implement a program to use drones effectively to enforce safety codes. PG&E has acknowledged that it has not inspected many of its existing lines and that the connections on these various systems are vulnerable to failure that result in fires.  But to-date the PG&E response to this problem has been to estimate that it will take up to ten years to complete new comprehensive inspections and then make the corrections that are needed. 

Love this point, Leah. Drones in the utility sector have definitely taken off recently (pardon the pun)-- see the submissions to Energy Central's call for articles on the topic a little over a year ago: https://www.energycentral.com/topics/tags/drones-nov-2018

Given that this topic has gone from niche to more widely available, do you see any significant hurdles with this approach remaining? For example, I worry that maybe drones will be seen as a 'shortcut' to check the box of inspections and safety rather than being used as they should to greatly enhance and deepen the level of regular safety checks that are done. Do you think that's an issue, or are drones being implemented to their full potential?

Bentham Paulos's picture
Bentham Paulos on Feb 18, 2020 10:34 pm GMT

This is a reasonable set of ideas, and timely as the CPUC just opened workshops today on fire safety planning.  I have a new report I wrote for Vote Solar on how to put solar + storage at the center of resiliency planning.  I'll post on it this week or next, or see votesolar.org if you can't wait.

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