San Jose looks to boost energy resiliency in wake of wildfire-driven blackouts
California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing drop water on the Rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near Yosemite National Park. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Flagg, courtesy of the Department of Defense.

    Since the California Public Utilities Commission decided to allow energy providers to unilaterally turn off the lights when the risk for wildfires is high, San Jose lawmakers want to know how it will affect the more than one million residents in the city.

    In a new memo, Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Raul Peralez and Pam Foley asked city officials to study how San Jose can notify residents quickly and mitigate the impact of blackouts. As California’s wildfire season begins once again, the state’s Public Utilities Commission last month updated its guidelines for allowing companies like PG&E to conduct Public Safety Power Shutoffs. The news came weeks after CalFire announced that PG&E’s power transmission lines were the cause of the devastating Camp Fire, which destroyed 18,804 structures and killed 85 people.

    “Although the City Council voted to establish San Jose Clean Energy in 2017, PG&E still operates and maintains our community’s electrical distribution infrastructure,” the councilors wrote. “Without control of that infrastructure, San Jose depends upon PG&E to ensure the safety and energy reliability of our community – a very unsettling reality.”

    Since May 30, PG&E has shut off the power in Butte, Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties, among others, leaving thousands of residents in the dark.

    The mayor, vice mayor and three councilmembers have asked city officials to schedule a study session this fall where they will examine:

    • Quickly notifying residents, especially those using energy-dependent medical devices, senior citizens and non-English speakers, as soon as officials learn that PG&E is turning the power off.
    • Making investments in energy storage, fuel cells and backup generators that could provide power to hospitals, emergency responders or the airport.
    • Making investments in micro-grids for longer term power solutions.
    • Identifying other alternatives to PG&E, such as forming a publicly-owned utility district or purchasing PG&E distribution assets.
    • Coordinating with the county and other relevant agencies to protect vulnerable populations, such as dialysis patients and senior citizens who may need air conditioning on hot days.
    • Assessing next steps, like ballot measures, state grants and bond issuances, that will help San Jose become more energy resilient.

    “We need to better understand the consequences of de-energization, particularly its adverse impacts to vulnerable populations and critical operations,” the councilors wrote. “Mitigating these unknown risks could include developing more micro- grids that can maintain power during blackouts, or purchasing PG&E’s electrical infrastructure as the City of San Francisco is currently exploring.”

    Zachary Stuyk, a deputy director at San Jose Clean Energy – a new community choice energy option in the city – said officials are in the early stages of studying energy resiliency. Although San Jose Clean Energy delivers residents with greener power, it still operates on PG&E’s infrastructures.

    “The idea of Silicon Valley turning off for two or four or seven days, that gets ones’ attention,” Stuyk said in an interview. “If this is really happening, we need to start to make plans to have a different outcome in the near future.”

    Contact Grace Hase at [email protected] or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.

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