Photo: Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News

After suffering at least four consecutive days of widespread power outages during last week’s record-breaking heat wave, many in Morgan Hill are demanding answers and accountability from the region’s electric utility service provider.

Each day from Sept. 5-8, when temperatures climbed well over 100 degrees daily, significant portions of Morgan Hill saw prolonged power outages—sometimes affecting thousands of local customers, according to PG&E representatives and city officials. Some households found themselves without power all four days—peaking with an outage on Sept. 7 that affected about 19,000 customers in Morgan Hill.

The outages knocked out traffic signals, public water service equipment and electricity for entire neighborhoods, prompting City Hall to send alerts to residents and place more police on patrol throughout town. The city’s public works crew ran generators to keep water and sewer pumps operating, and placed barricades and temporary stop signs at unlit high-traffic intersections, according to city staff. Public cooling centers with reliable air-conditioning were staffed well into the evening.

As temperatures didn’t cool much overnight, many residents complained of sleepless evenings without power for air-conditioning or fans, and refrigerators full of spoiled food due to the repeated electricity failures.

The outages weren’t isolated to Morgan Hill, but the city seems to have suffered disproportionately compared to nearby areas, according to numerous observers. In PG&E’s San Jose Division, which includes Morgan Hill, 118,000 customers lost power at different times during the weeklong heat wave, according to PG&E spokesperson Mayra Tostado. Most of those saw their electricity restored in six hours or less.

Representatives of PG&E, northern California’s investor-owned electricity provider, have also said that the many outages last week were related to the uncompromisingly hot weather, resulting in an overload to the power system. The stress from such overloading caused transformers—which distribute power to customers—and other equipment to fail.

One of the outages on Sept. 6 resulted from an underground electrical fire in Morgan Hill, according to authorities.

But city officials want to hear more details from PG&E about these equipment failures, and are demanding upgrades to the utility’s infrastructure to prevent such prolonged service disruptions in the future. Morgan Hill Public Works Director Chris Ghione said if PG&E doesn’t provide such information, the city is prepared to seek recourse from regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission.

“Everyone at the city is demanding that PG&E be held accountable,” Ghione said. “It’s pretty obvious that PG&E needs to make some improvements to the infrastructure here in Morgan Hill. The temperatures were unheard of (last week) but Morgan Hill was impacted more than any other surrounding communities.”

Specifically, the city is asking PG&E for details “on everything that went out, in writing, and we’re requesting information on exactly what changes have been made and what needs to be upgraded in the future to prevent this,” Ghione said. And the city wants PG&E to share this information with the public.

Morgan Hill City Councilmember Rene Spring said in a Sept. 9 social media post, “We need answers from PG&E to the many questions raised, and PG&E needs to be made accountable for its inactions and lack of support of our community with all means available to us!”

PG&E is aware of the city’s concerns, as the two parties were in almost constant discussion—sometimes late into the evenings—during the Sept. 5-8 electrical outages. Tostado said the utility provider has formed a task force—with a team of engineers—to review the recent outages in Morgan Hill and determine where it can improve the electricity delivery system.

“PG&E’s top leaders, including our CEO (Patricia Poppe), are engaged on the outage issue in Morgan Hill, and will be having discussions with city leaders in the coming days,” Tostado said in a statement. “Rest assured that mitigating future outages to ensure that our customers in Morgan Hill have reliable electric service is a top priority for PG&E.”

The city and PG&E made some short-term headway by Sept. 9, as city staff reported that the utility company had made some adjustments to its equipment in Morgan Hill. Ghione said PG&E told the city that these adjustments are related to circuits owned by PG&E in Morgan Hill that are normally set to prevent overheating on the edges of town where wildfires are an ongoing risk.  

Tostado noted, “We are also reviewing the safety settings on power equipment in high-fire threat areas to determine if the sensitivity can be adjusted to mitigate outage activity.”

Tostado explained the overloading of the system during last week’s statewide heat wave resulted from higher demand throughout PG&E’s service area, causing “underground and overhead electric issues.”

“The largest heat-related outage in Morgan Hill impacted approximately 19,000 customers when underground equipment was damaged at a substation,” Tostado said. “On other days with triple-digit temperatures and excessive power demand…multiple transformers were damaged and resulted in outages as well. Electric equipment cools overnight, but due to this historic heat wave causing high overnight temperatures for several consecutive days, the equipment never had a chance to cool down and was being stressed by high power demand.”

‘All-electric future?’

With weather forecasts predicting the prolonged heat wave before the Labor Day weekend started—and in anticipation of the heightened demand on the grid—the California Independent System Operator nearly every day last week issued Flex Alerts asking people to reduce their power consumption during the early evening hours.

Clearly, those alerts didn’t accomplish their goals in Morgan Hill, according to local resident Ray Dzek, who runs a popular social media community page on his spare time. On the Facebook group “Morgan Hill Neighborhood,” Dzek—who works days as a global network operator and architect—posted throughout the week with the latest updates from PG&E’s online outage maps and from the city, adding commentary and facilitating discussion among the group’s 10,000 members.

While Dzek’s home only lost electricity for about four hours on Sept. 7, he noted that some neighborhoods, including Jackson Oaks in east Morgan Hill, lost power every day last week—some multiple times a day. But Morgan Hill’s segment of the PG&E system has always seemed vulnerable to weather-related failures, Dzek noted.

“We know heat events and power outages go hand in hand here,” Dzek told this newspaper. “And we had already experienced what seemed like five or six major outages in the past few months, so I started posting the weekend prior to alert the group that outages would be likely. But nobody predicted the magnitude of what we experienced last week.”

Dzek said as the heat wave progressed, the impacts reported to the group by local residents piled up: senior citizens suffering heat-related illness, “unknown thousands of dollars in perished food” and an overriding sense of heightened anxiety.

He added that CAL ISO’s statement late in the week that it was able to avoid implementing “rolling blackouts” to reduce stress on the grid seemed tone deaf considering the inevitable outages in Morgan Hill. “How many customers need to lose power from equipment failures before enough load is shed from the system negating the need for rolling blackouts?” Dzek rhetorically asked.

Echoing the sentiment of many observers of the state’s electricity system, Dzek also wonders if last week’s fiasco shows that California’s vision of transitioning to all-renewable energy is premature.

“Recent local ordinances removing natural gas, which could still be used for cooking and heating water in a power outage, and statewide elimination of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, will create significantly more mandated dependence on the power grid,” Dzek said. “Any confidence or trust that we are ready for an all-electric future certainly took a hit with last week’s events.”

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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