Insights

Public Safety Power Shutoffs in California: Risk Management Tips and Resources

October 22, 2019

Crisis Management

Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), are intended to prevent wildfires caused by power lines during windy dry weather, particularly during the Santa Ana fire season (October–March), although the summer fire season (June–September) also has this potential. To help you stay informed about this, included below are key takeaways on this new risk mitigation effort. This information applies to California’s three largest investor-owned utilities: Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

1. Areas Prone to Shutoffs

Year round, the areas most likely to be considered for a PSPS are those with Tier 2 and Tier 3 fire threats, shown in the map below:

Map of California fire threat areas

Beginning with the 2019 wildfire season, the utilities are expanding their PSPS program to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas—both distribution and transmission.

The most likely electric lines to be considered for shutting off for safety will be those that pass through areas that have been designated by the CPUC as at elevated (Tier 2) or extreme (Tier 3) risk for wildfire.

2. Factors that Drive a Shutoff Situation

There are a few basic factors that would drive the determination to shutoff power, listed below. There is essentially no special consideration for critical users (like hospitals), since fire safety would generally be a bigger concern than a power outage.

The utilities will call a PSPS when gusty winds combine with a heightened fire risk. They monitor conditions across their systems and evaluate whether to proactively turn off electric lines. While no single factor will drive a PSPS, some factors include:

  • Red Flag Warning – Declared by the National Weather Service
  • Low Humidity Levels Generally 20% and below
  • Forecasted Sustained Winds Generally above 25 MPH and wind gusts in excess of approximately 45 mph, depending on location and site-specific conditions such as temperature, terrain and local climate
  • Condition Of Dry Fuel – On the ground and live vegetation (moisture content)
  • On-the-ground, Real-time Observations – from Wildfire Safety Operations Center and field observations from crews

3. How Customers Get Notified

The utilities have plans in place for notifications prior to these outages (when possible).  Customers of these utilities can register for notifications (https://prepareforpowerdown.com). Extreme weather threats can change quickly. Their goal, dependent on weather, is to provide customers with advance notice prior to turning off power. They will also provide updates until power is restored.

Timing of notifications, when possible, is as follows:

  • ~48 hours before electricity is turned off
  • ~24 hours before electricity is turned off
  • Just before electricity is turned off
  • During the public safety outage
  • Once power has been restored

Utilities will attempt to provide notice in advance through cities, counties and other agencies:

  • Phone calls/emails to primary contacts
  • Automated notifications to send alerts through multiple channels
  • Provide customer alerts to share via channels, such as city or county website, Nixie, Nextdoor and Reverse 911

Customer notifications will be attempted through calls, texts and emails. They will also use social media and keep local news and radio outlets informed and updated.

General information about PSPS is available here and applies to California’s three largest investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric).

Maps of current or planned outage areas are available here:

4. Process for Restoring Power

The utilities will restore power when they are certain it is safe to do so. They expect to be able to visually inspect for damage and restore power to most of their customers within 24 to 48 hours after extreme weather has passed. The process is as follows:

  •  Weather All Clear – After the weather has passed and it’s safe to do so, crews begin patrols and inspections.
  • Patrol & Inspect – Crews visually inspect our electric system to look for potential weather-related damage to the lines, poles and towers. This is done by vehicle, foot and air during daylight hours.
  • Isolate & Repair Damage – Where damage is found, crews work to isolate the area so other parts of the system can be restored. Crews work safely and as quickly as possible to make repairs.
  • Restore Power – Once it is safe to energize, a call is made to the Control Center to complete the energization process. Power is then restored to customers.
  • Notify Customers – Customers are notified that power has been restored.

5. Preparedness Tips

The San Jose Mercury News offered some advice during the PSPS in early October 2019. Much of the advice there in terms of planning for future outages is still relevant.

6. Insurance Coverage

Though disruptive to your business, planned power outages fall outside insurable risk that property carriers can quantify and rate. Business continuity plans and loss control measures will offer the more fruitful risk management approach, and our engineers are available to discuss your specific concerns. For insureds fearing irreparable financial harm, please contact a member of your team to explore risk transfer alternatives.

  • During any outages, coverage remains in place as usual – including perils with increased vulnerability such as fire, vandalism, and burglary.
  • The planned outages alone do not qualify as a covered peril to trigger business interruption coverage under most property policies.
  • Service Interruption coverage does exist in some policies, but it typically has to be the result of physical damage to property “of the type insured” at the supplier of the electricity, gas, fuel, steam, water, refrigeration or outgoing sewerage, from a covered peril. Examples include fire, explosion for most policies, and earthquake if it is purchased within the policy.
  • Similarly, civil or military authority coverage exists in some policies, but it addresses the inability to physically access your location because of local authorities blocking access points, and typically has to be the result of physical damage from a covered peril to property “of the type insured.” An example would be a neighboring building, not your own, that sustains a massive explosion and the police barricade the entire block, denying employees and/or customers to your location.

We encourage clients to:

  • Review Business Continuity Plans.
  • Perform checks on back-up power systems/generators.
  • Be aware if protection systems require power, e.g., electric fire pumps to power automatic sprinklers, and notify your carrier of the impairment.

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All views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.