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PG&E's EPSS: Here's why your power could be shut off

Posted at 6:59 AM, Jul 13, 2023

Hot, dry, and windy weather is the perfect combination for catastrophic wildfires, but no one wants their power to be turned off, especially when it’s unplanned and seems to come at an inconvenient time.

PG&E has implemented Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings, or EPSS for short, throughout the Central Coast. They are just one of those unexpected power outages.

The purpose? According to PG&E, it’s in the name: "Safety."

Enhanced Powerline Safety Settings are devices on a powerline that, when triggered by an outside force like high winds, a tree falling, or an animal coming into contact with them, turn off the power to any connected customers down the line.

A video demonstration shows a powerline with a disabled EPSS device allowing the electric current to continue down the powerline after a small branch falls on it. Another video clip shows an enabled EPSS cutting power nearly instantaneously; when the EPSS device is triggered by the fallen branch, PG&E cuts power in 1/10 of a second.

At any point, PG&E can have hundreds of the devices activated across the Central Coast because of high-risk fire conditions.

PG&E started an EPSS pilot period in 2021. The year 2020 saw massive wildfires totaling over 4 million acres burned, including the Zogg Fire that resulted in the death of four people in Shasta County. CAL FIRE determined that it was caused by a tree falling on a PG&E powerline.

PG&E spokesperson Carina Corral says EPSS has resulted in a major decrease in wildfires caused by electric distribution equipment across the state.

“It's really telling to see how effective this technology is, and it's proven to be successful,” Corral said. “We've been able to reduce the number of ignitions that are reportable to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) by 68%. And the ones that do start, we've been able to reduce the acreage by 99%.”

Areas that you may not expect to lose power from an EPSS activation still could, due to proximity and the electricity distribution line where the device is located. For example, the area near Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo on the way to Los Osos.

“It's connected to lines that go into those rural areas like in the Irish hills, and so that's why that line is connected to an EPSS setting,” Corral said. “Because it's those power lines that it feeds into are rural areas that are in high fire threat districts.”

Similar setups are in Santa Barbara County and northern San Luis Obispo County.

“It's unfortunate, but it makes sense," said Tyler Eigenhuis of Bru Coffeehouse in Atascadero. "We don't want a repeat of the massive fires a few years ago. We will take a day out of business in exchange for the city not burning down, or not risking that at least.”

Here are some EPSS numbers on the Central Coast provided by PG&E:

  • Between June 17th and July 11th, there have been roughly 30 EPSS outages in the Los Padres Region caused by one of the following: an animal hitting the line, vegetation, or a tree branch.
  • PG&E’s EPSS devices cover 44,000 miles across a two million customer range.
  • Power restoration time varies depending on the causation and location of the EPSS device being triggered. The average EPSS outage in 2022 was roughly three hours.
  • Sometimes the utility doesn’t find a specific cause that triggered the EPSS.

Corral shared with KSBY some tips on how you can prepare yourself for an EPSS outage:

  • PG&E urges customers to stay safe and stay away from downed power lines.
  • Have flashlights, radios, and fresh batteries ready.
  • Use a cell phone or hard-wired phone. Cordless phones do not work without electricity.
  • Use battery-operated flashlights, not candles, which pose a fire hazard.
  • Freeze water-filled plastic jugs to make blocks of ice. Place them in the fridge and freezer to help prevent food from spoiling.
  • If you have a generator, make sure a licensed electrician properly installs it. Improperly installed generators pose a significant danger to PG&E crews.