In order to lessen the possibility of wildfires caused by downed power lines due to high winds or other faulty equipment like exploding transformers, last fall California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric shutoff power to large swaths of its service territory.

Recent catastrophic wildfires that were deemed to have been caused by the utility had cost PG&E untold millions of dollars and their answer to mitigating the risk was the Legislative and Regulatory approved Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program – for PG&E and all California utilities. 

The shutoffs that followed, blacked out whole towns and cities closing businesses and leaving their residential customers without electricity for days at a time. Small gasoline fired generators flew off the shelves at hardware stores as people tried desperately to keep their lights on and the food in their refrigerators from spoiling. 

To a lesser extent the State’s two other large investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) also instituted power shutoff programs to cope with the wildfire threat in their service territories.

Recently PG&E announced that with the beginning of the 2020 wildfire season, the power shutoffs would return although they said they would try to make them shorter and less frequent.  However high temperatures, high winds and dry conditions will dictate how long these shutoffs will last and that is very unpredictable despite what PG&E tells their customers.

With the return of power shutoffs, PG&E has reached back to the future to install back-up power generation.  It will be good old reliable diesel fired generators.

Despite concerns about the air quality impacts from diesel pollution spewed from these backup generators, the California Public Utilities Commission reluctantly but nonetheless unanimously approved PG&E’s installation of 320 MW of these microgrids at its substations in high fire threat areas. 

While not an ideal solution, CPUC Commissioner Guzman-Aceves said, “People want whatever it takes to keep the power on.” 

And that in a nutshell says it all.

PG&E estimated the cost of the backup systems at nearly $320 million this year, and another $30 million next year and the following year.   The costs are to be subjected to a reasonableness review subsequently, and covered by ratepayers if approved by the Commission.

The CPUC decision states PG&E’s use of these microgrids “must be limited to one year,” in response to clean air and renewable energy advocates concerns. But it does not mandate that PG&E develop an explicit plan to replace these generators by 2021.  The decision requires the utility by March 11 to make a filing detailing the use, location, hours run, and why diesel back was used this year.

The plan approving the diesel microgrids also mandated that PG&E, SCE and SDG&E simplify their approvals of third-party backup systems in high fire threat zones and their interconnection to utility grids.  The IOUs were ordered to improve their coordination on resiliency with local and tribal governments.

Lastly, the decision approves SDG&E’s use of proprietary software and hardware program to control local distribution developed by a company subsidiary.

All the details listed above and by stating that this will only be for one year, seems geared to providing cover for the Commission with California’s environmentalists and air quality bureaucrats who abhor the thought of fossil fuel generated electricity. 

The bottom line is that reliability drove the Commission’s decision and diesel is still keeping the lights on and powering the trucks that deliver your Amazon purchases and likely will for some time to come.