SALT LAKE CITY — The massive planned power outages plunging millions of California residents into darkness are a wildfire prevention tactic Rocky Mountain Power wants to avoid, but in preparation for a worst-case scenario, the utility company developed a contingency plan over the summer to do just that.
About 5,000 customers out of 900,000 in Utah live or operate a business or institution in Public Safety Power Shutoff Areas determined by the utility.
Over several months this summer, the utility company held dozens of meetings with impacted residents, sent out letters, requested updated contact information — including use of electricity-reliant medical devices — and coordinated with community leaders, the Utah Division of Emergency Management and state wildfire officials.
Along with the Public Safety Power Shutoff Areas, the utility coordinated with state wildfire officials to identify “Fire High Consequence Areas” that are at risk for wildfire and where people should create defensible zones around their property and have a wildfire emergency plan. Those areas include the vulnerable Wasatch Canyons and many parts of the urbanized Wasatch Front.
Residents can go to a special page on Rocky Mountain Power’s website to learn more about the zones, how impacted customers would be notified, and what measures can be taken around individual properties to minimize wildfire risk.
California’s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has been instituting massive power outages in the Bay Area and elsewhere because the combination of high winds, power lines and extreme fire danger pose catastrophic risk.
The power company’s equipment malfunctions have been linked to devastating and deadly wildfires in California, including the 2018 Camp Fire that razed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Trying to avoid that risk of equipment failure or power lines sparking a blaze, the embattled utility company — which has come under harsh criticism from customers and the governor — instituted the power outages this fall.
Southern California Edison, which supplies power to 15 million people, has also come under criticism for its potential link to large wildfires that could have been caused by faulty equipment.
Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman Tiffany Erickson said Utah crews identified vulnerable areas in the Public Safety Power Shutoff Areas where vegetation could come in contact with transmission lines and cleared tree limbs and other hazards. The utility company has also surveyed its own equipment for any structural problems and made repairs where necessary.
“Throughout the past couple of years we have seen wildfires that are devastating, especially in California, and we wanted to be sure we could avoid being the cause of that,” she said. “We did not want to do anything in a vacuum. ... The point is making sure everyone is informed and knows what to expect and that we are ready for it.”
The utility company installed eight weather stations in the vulnerable power shutoff zones to measure wind, humidity and other conditions. Two more will be installed by next summer, Erickson added.
“Customer safety is our No. 1 priority. With our shutoff measures, we are trying to avoid being the cause of these fires.”
California’s power outages were accompanied by chaos as residents scrambled to buy emergency supplies such generators and gasoline to fuel them, water bottles, batteries, flashlights, oil lamps and more. Lines in stores were long for supplies that had already gone off the shelf.
Natural disasters and the desire for sustainability are prompting some households to invest in battery technology that can store energy in times of emergency. An online search for “solar generators” yields a variety of equipment, some powered with lithium batteries in units that include Wi-Fi and other bells and whistles.
A Utah County businessman, Glenn Jakins, just inked a contract through his multimillion dollar company, Humless, for 600 homes in Oregon to go completely off grid using his technology. The Humless can take power from any source — wind, solar or the grid — and store it for future use. A basic unit can power a refrigerator for several days, and other units, which can be upgraded over time, can power an entire home in a seamless transition, he said.
Jakins is a 12th-generation South African who came to Utah in 1990. He said energy storage technology in the United States is less developed than elsewhere, mainly because the electric grid is typically so reliable.
The blackouts in California offer new challenges, he said, and people are looking for answers.
“This gives you the ability to control your own power.”
While battery storage for energy isn’t part of most households, the good news for Utah is that at least 75% of residents report having an emergency kit and emergency plan, with supplies on hand that likely extend past 72 hours.
“We are fortunate to have a culture of preparedness,” said Joe Dougherty, spokesman with the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
Utah also has 90 communities with Community Emergency Response Teams that are trained in basic disaster response and certified through beready.utah.gov/index and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dougherty said.
“Even though that big earthquake has not happened yet, we have power outages, and these emergency kits work for so many things, even a job loss. If you plan ahead with money and supplies, you can weather any major interruption in your life.”
The division is also trying to shift the conversation from what the government tells you to do to how people can initiate preparedness among their own family members, neighborhood and community, Dougherty added.
It has come up with a new feature on its website, dem.utah.gov/share, to encourage people to share their stories of preparedness and inspire others to act.
“People are probably more prepared than they think. We have a great outdoors culture in this state with camping and hunting,” he said.
The division has been working with Rocky Mountain Power on its Public Safety Power Shutoff Areas, Dougherty said.
“We have been part of the conversation,” he said, “because nobody wants to see a repeat of Paradise, California.”