The Danville community squared off with PG&E officials at the latest Town Council meeting, following months of power outages and outcry from Danville residents and officials, including a formal letter from Town Manager Joe Calabrigo to the energy company last month.
With the recent outages having impacted businesses, restaurants, the town offices and local schools, PG&E's regional vice president Aaron Johnson and regional government relations manager Sarah Yoell -- a Danville resident herself -- joined council members Tuesday evening for a public presentation aimed at explaining the outages in Danville and addressing questions and concerns.
"Your reliability has been unacceptable, and we fell short in our responsibility to the Town of Danville," Yoell said at the start of the evening's discussion. "As we work to strengthen our system and improve your reliability, your feedback is critical."
The cause of the outages, according to Yoell and Johnson, can be traced back to safety settings on PG&E infrastructure that are aimed at reducing wildfire risk, but that can result in loss of power for prolonged periods of time in hot weather under their current level of sensitivity.
"In 2021 we began implementing new, more sensitive safety settings to address the extreme drought conditions and decrease wildfire risk we were seeing throughout our service area," Yoell said. "These are the enhanced powerline safety settings, or EPSS, which you've heard a lot about.
The EPSS, in addition to public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), have been effective at preventing wildfires, Yoell said, but the safety measures have come at the expense of reliability for many Danville customers, Yoell said.
During a PSPS, Yoell noted that customers miles outside of the hazardous conditions they're meant to mitigate can be impacted, with the recent outages in Danville being a stark example.
However, this was all information that had already been provided to the council in letters from Johnson in response to Calabrigo's initial correspondence to PG&E last month, and which had failed to satisfy the council and other community members who'd been impacted by the frequent, abrupt, and sometimes lengthy periods of time without power over the summer.
Johnson provided additional details on the background and technology behind the EPSS option and the PSPS outages, as well as distinguishing them from outages brought on by a more sensitive EPPS option. He pointed to recent upgrades to infrastructure and work that was scheduled for the end of the year but pushed ahead in the wake of reliability issues in Danville and the surrounding area.
But the council had additional questions.
"All we have is a system that's being shut off and nobody knows why," Councilmember Newell Arnerich said. "Now when you talk about how it would help if we were all connected -- we are connected."
"So we do have that connectivity," he continued. "Silicon Valley sleeps here at night. We all run companies, so what we expect is if there's a problem, there's a solution; there is a plan. We are frustrated. Where is your plan? We are told that the power is out most of the time because we don't know."
Arnerich asked for specifics about the plan to address power outages in Danville, pointing to the 40 outages over the past three months, and questioned the effectiveness of the existing technology and when it would be upgraded to enhance reliability.
Johnson agreed that the infrastructure in place was relatively low-tech, as well as issues faced by PG&E workers in pinpointing the precise location of a specific outage, let alone a precise cause, throughout the region. He pointed to past, current and future efforts to address this, and said that the location aspect was at least becoming easier with modifications and upgrades throughout the Bay Area region.
He emphasized that the state of power reliability in Danville and PG&E's low performance in the town over the past several months made upgrades to infrastructure in the area a top priority for the region.
"Given the reliability we're seeing in this area, I expect more and more work as we systematically replace that equipment," Johnson said.
In addition to numerous questions and comments from five-member Town Council, Johnson and Yoell heard from several members of the public about the personal impacts of the outages and the risks and losses faced by sectors including healthcare, hospitality, and education.
"Power outages are extremely disruptive to our students, family and staff," San Ramon Valley Unified School District Trustee Shelly Clark said. "Over the course of the last school year alone and into this school year so far, we have had a total of 29 power outages at eight schools in Danville and three schools in Alamo. And these don't account for power outages that happen outside of school hours."
"Outages not only lead to an interruption in the educational process and a lack of access to technology, but there are many other detrimental and costly consequences as well," Clark added.
Among these consequences, Clark pointed to an estimated $5,000 lost by the district in food due to weekend power outages, "significant" overtime pay for on-call staff brought in to check on power outages at district schools during off hours, and a lack of access to phones at district offices during power outages that prevents parents from having reliable means to contact their children's schools.
She also noted that power outages prevent obstacles to keeping classrooms at comfortable temperatures with sufficient lighting -- as well as at least one incident of high school students during the spring semester being prevented from completing their AP testing during an outage.
Vice Mayor Karen Stepper asked Johnson to join the Danville Area Chamber of Commerce to hear more from small business owners in particular about their losses from the recent outages, with the council overall pointing to the significance of outages in Downtown Danville in particular.
"This is hard on them -- they can't keep taking these kicks, whether it's from COVID or it's from power outages," Stepper said.
With that night's agenda item being informational only with no vote set on an action item, Johnson said that he would bring the feedback from the night's discussion to executives at PG&E, and agreed to more frequent communication with the council and coordination surrounding ongoing outages in the area.
Many remained frustrated with the lack of specific action and commitment at the end of the discussion, although all parties involved agreed to further dialogue on the issue and to seek ways to address the recent outages in Danville in particular.
Mayor Robert Storer said that in the interim, he wished he could see more transparency from PG&E, suggesting to Johsnon that the company implement the same level of marketing in order to educate customers about potential interruptions rather than just to tout recent wildfire prevention and conservation efforts.
"You have to be the best game in town, and right now you're not," Storer said. "And I think you can be, and I think what we've heard from you is really positive comments, but we've got to have something behind it that will make our residents believe that PG&E is rolling in the direction we'd like to see you go. Now we know it's going to take some time. But tell us how much time it's going to take."