Congresswoman leans on power company

Eshoo: PG&E must provide reliable electricity while focusing on safety

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Eshoo and Gibbons at art booth
(L-R) Rep. Anna Eshoo and Campbell Mayor Liz Gibbons at Paul Tumason's booth at the Fiesta de Artes Saturday. (Photo by Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

On Sept. 20, Congress member Anna Eshoo took up the cause of local residents frustrated by frequent power outages, demanding answers about why PG&E’s grid has been so undependable.

In a letter to the utility’s CEO Patricia Poppe, Eshoo said Santa Cruz Mountains residents are “rightly frustrated” about the region’s decreasing reliability of electrical service.

“While I appreciate the utility’s long-overdue attention to wildfire prevention, safety need not necessarily come at the expense of reliability,” she said. “PG&E has failed to provide an adequate explanation to ratepayers whom the utility has left in the dark.”

Eshoo has been pushing Joe Biden’s $4.7 trillion-worth of initiatives that would, in part, increase reliance on electricity companies, as America struggles to wean itself off climate change-causing fossil fuels.

She was in Los Gatos Sept. 18 as officials announced $7 million in state funding for wildfire preparedness in Silicon Valley.

Blackouts in mountain communities such as Felton, Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, Montevina Road and Brookdale have followed on the heels of Public Safety Power Shutoffs and rolling blackouts, Eshoo wrote to the CEO, questioning the extent to which increased sensitivity of fault-sensing equipment really is to blame for the intermittent delivery of electrical current.

“Unexpected and days-long outages are more than an inconvenience,” she said. “They pose their own health and safety risks, particularly for the elderly and those living in more isolated areas.”

“PG&E has an obligation to protect the safety of its ratepayers and to provide them with reliable electricity”

—Anna Eshoo, congresswoman

Eshoo inquired about where PG&E has recently installed new safety equipment, how many people in Santa Cruz County were affected, if the company has looked at other ways to reduce wildfire risk and about what it’s doing to improve outreach to customers.

“PG&E has an obligation to protect the safety of its ratepayers and to provide them with reliable electricity,” she said. “Exchanging the latter for the former is not an acceptable tradeoff in the long term.”

Eshoo said the problems with PG&E underline how important it is to address climate change, since dry forests are more likely to ignite when old power equipment breaks down and sends sparks flying.

“That’s why the undergrounding of utilities is so important,” she said, touting the provisions in proposed Democratic legislation. “There’s not one single silver bullet in this; you have to address it with a multiplicity of approaches—and the funding reflects that.”

While she says she gets that PG&E would want to play it safe after being accused of causing multiple devastating wildfires in California, Eshoo says she’s still not really understanding why mountain residents have had to deal with as many power outages as they have.

“My constituents in the Santa Cruz portion of the district are suffering under the continuing loss of electricity,” she said. “This is affecting their lives, and I don’t have a clear answer for it.”

In a recent press release, PG&E said its new public safety measures—including the upped sensitivity of equipment—have led to a 50% decrease in potential fire ignitions.

“As California’s wildfire risk continues to grow, PG&E is committed to implementing new safety measures to mitigate catastrophic wildfires,” said Marlene Santos, PG&E’s executive vice president and chief customer officer. “These updated settings have already significantly reduced wildfire risk for customers in high fire-threat areas.”

Weeks after customers protested recent PG&E power outages Sept. 9 at its headquarters, the company announced it would hold a webinar Sept. 23 for Corralitos and Watsonville area customers from 12-1:30pm, and with Santa Clara County and San Lorenzo Valley customers on Sept. 23 from 5:30–7pm.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]