Council to discuss the recent Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS)

Jada Brotman & Jack Durham
Mad River Union

Arcata council to ponder post-PSPS prep, effects

ARCATA – The Arcata City Council meets in special session to discuss the recent Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. in Council Chamber at City Hall, 736 F St.

Agenda items include a review of the Public Safety Power Shutdown, including lessons from the community; costs incurred by the city, necessary planning for future events; and economic losses to local businesses.

The council will also consider current city emergency preparedness planning efforts, including a draft updated plan and hazard annexes, highest priority needs such as generators, fueling, water, etc.

Related considerations include partnership development with Arcata House Partnership, Redwood Coast Energy Authority, Red Cross, and Humboldt County Senior Resource Center; communications and public outreach and education; the city’s noise ordinance and potential increased generator noise and emissions during power shutdown periods.

The PSPS ordeal, in detail

Spoiled food, lost revenues, lost income, chilly homes and closed schools were just some of the effects of the most recent planned power outage, a situation that has spurred county leaders to demand that Pacific Gas & Electric Co.  (PG&E) to take action to end the electrical shutdowns.

The power went off Saturday afternoon, Oct. 26 and left many customers in the dark until Monday afternoon, Oct. 28. Just as the power was being restored, PG&E announced a second planned “PSPS,” or Public Safety Power

Shutdown, to take place Tuesday evening, giving residents a small window of time to recharge their batteries, make ice and prepare for what they were told could be a multi-day outage. 

But by early Tuesday evening – and after much confusion –  that power outage was canceled.

‘Grave concerns’

Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chair Rex Bohn and Sheriff William Honsal wrote a letter last week to the heads of the utility demanding action.

“We are writing to express grave concerns over PG&E’s handling of recent Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events in Humboldt County,” the letter states. “Over the past three weeks we have experienced three PSPS events that have severely impacted the elderly, the disabled, some of our most vulnerable and needy residents, those with critical medical needs, along with small businesses (many of which are the backbone of our community), hospitals and medical providers who provide critical emergency care along with needed cancer treatments and diagnostic services. “

The letter continues, “Humboldt County has always had a good working relationship/partnership with PG&E. We supported PG&E’s decommissioning of the local PG&E Nuclear Power Plant and the rebuilding of the current plant, which still has onsite nuclear storage. One of the biggest questions this county has is why PG&E didn’t put a plan in place to develop a dedicated grid for Humboldt County when the new power plant was being constructed. Now, when the PSPS events occur, Humboldt is subject to the weather events happening in neighboring counties. The PSPS event in the Central Valley shuts the transmission lines to Humboldt County, and forces our local power plant, and two bio mass plants from energizing the grid. PG&E needs to come up with an immediate plan to utilize our local power generation plants to energize the local grid minimize the impact of future PSPS events,” states the letter. 

“We strongly urge PG&E to hold a Public Forum in Humboldt County or at the very least, come to a Board of Supervisors meeting to explain why in the planning and construction of the new PG&E power plant, there was no allowance for a dedicated  grid that would allow for the switching of power from the existing power plant during these events,” the letter concludes.

A confusing Tuesday

The question on everyone’s mind on Tuesday, Oct. 29 was when would the power be turned off. 

PG&E issued a press release stating that in Northern Humboldt County, power would go off at 9 p.m.

However, PG&E’s outage time was quickly refuted by the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services, which indicated that the utility company’s estimated contradicted what authorities were told during a conference call earlier in the day.

“The information of a 9 p.m. shutoff occurring this evening is contrary to the information provided by PG&E during the update at 7:30 a.m. this morning,” stated an OES Facebook posting.   “There may be some confusion due to PG&E having zones with different names, one of which is called ‘N. Humboldt’ but actually pertains to Siskiyou County, not Humboldt County.”

Later on Facebook, OES again questioned the accuracy of PG&E outage information, stating “PG&E has provided the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services (OES) inaccurate information regarding times of de-energization in our County... OES has given PG&E the opportunity to retract this information, though at this time, they have not.”

A couple hours later on that day, OES received a clarification from PG&E and posted on Facebook “Recent PG&E updates have offered clarification as to the anticipated loss in power for Humboldt County. The county continues to remain within scope with a revised estimated time for power loss to begin at 7 p.m. this evening. Information from PG&E has been inconsistent and ever-changing.”

By 5:15 p.m., OES had received word that wind conditions had diminished and the planned outage was canceled.

‘Lost wages, lost income, lost product’

Over in McKinleyville, Eureka Natural Foods sold its dairy, meat and frozen goods for 50 percent off. 

“It is tremendously difficult for small businesses,’’ said Tyson Ritter, head of marketing. “In a business with thin margins, having these repeated shutdowns keeps everyone unable to prepare for the future. Insurance won’t cover everything. There are lost wages, lost revenue, lost product.”

Demand for generators

Yvonne Colburn, manager at Miller Farms in McKinleyville, was pleased her store could keep the lights on, thanks to its generator. 

“We had hot coffee going, and people could come and talk and get some coffee. They were appreciative.” She also had some good news economically. “We sold through two shipments of generators and we expect to go through our third.” 

Miller Farms plans to keep its supply of flashlights, battery-powered wall lights with velcro and magnets for hanging, solar lights, and “chocolate. That is a very important item to keep on hand!” Colburn said.

Trinity Diesel also reported record generator sales. Deborah Lankila, owner and manager, said they stock generators that run as low as $1,000 and as high as $110,000.

Restaurants struggle

Restaurants in particular are hard hit by loss of power. Aaron Eaton, owner of Stars Hamburgers in Arcata, reckons Stars lost seven days of business overall in October. 

“That’s seven day of lost revenue for the business, and lost wages for the workers, and no food for our customers,” he said. “I had to drive to Chico to get some generators. We saved our product by driving it back to the distribution center, so we saved our inventory. But seven days of revenue is a big deal for any small business.” 

Eaton plans on going full solar, and meanwhile he has two generators so he hopes to stay open in the next outage.

Grinding coffee

In anticipation of an outage that was supposed to take place Tuesday, Oct. 29, but never happened, Kinetic Koffee Manager Alan Black worked the night before grinding coffee. “We ground coffee until 9:30 p.m.” Black said.

During his route, while stocking stores with coffee, Black said he noticed a major increase in the sale of ground coffee over whole beans, since customers can’t use their electric grinders during an outage.

Black said he highly recommends that coffee lovers purchase a hand grinder.