A package of bills introduced in Sacramento by Sen. Steve Glazer, who represents the Tri-Valley, would require improved battery backup at cell towers during PG&E’s planned power outages.The bills also would require PG&E to have more battery packs available to people who need them to operate their electricity-dependent medical machines during power outages.
There would also be clarification of rules for emergency diesel generators at hospitals, so they don’t have to refrain from using them out of fear that a local air quality district might shut them down.
Glazer said in a Jan. 8 announcement that the bills, SB 801, SB 802, and SB 431, are intended “to help Californians deal with some of the worst effects of power outages until PG&E and other utilities can ensure that they can keep the lights on during dangerous high-wind conditions.”
SB 431, introduced jointly by Glazer and Sen. Mike McGuire of Sonoma County, would require a minimum of 72 hours of battery backup power on cell-service providers’ towers.
“We will do all we can to help our residents deal with any power outages that do occur,” Glazer said. “And that means ensuring that our most vulnerable residents do not see their lives threatened if power shuts down, and that people can communicate with each other.”
During the Kincade Fire and other power shutdowns, nearly 900 of the state’s cell sites were not operating, according to the FCC. An estimated 57% of Marin County sites were not working, and other counties experienced losses in service, anywhere from 2% in Santa Clara County to 22% in Santa Cruz County.
The statistics varied by carrier. Heidi Flato, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said that although Marin County lost service at 57% of cell towers at the height of a PG&E planned outage on Oct. 28, 2019, the figure in Marin for Verizon was only 8%. In Sonoma County, 27% of wireless service sites were not functioning, but Verizon lost just 7% of its sites there.
Verizon supports efforts to improve the resiliency of its communications network. “We look forward to working with the Legislature in crafting such sensible and feasible measures,” Flato said.
Other carriers could not be reached for comment.
SB 801 would require utilities to do more to help medically vulnerable people to survive a planned power outage. Glazer said that PG&E has only 500 backup batteries available to the vulnerable public, and needs more.
Glazer indicated that more than 100,000 people have signed up for PG&E’s medical baseline designation, which means they depend on electricity for their health. They get advanced notice of any planned power outages, so that they will have time to move to a place that will not lose power.
However, many disabled and elderly people can’t move, or have no place to go. Some medications need refrigeration, he said.
PG&E spokesman James Noonan said the firm has been reviewing the bill on medical device back-up and has not taken a position.
“PG&E does have a limited number of backup generators available, and works with customers directly when those requests are made,” he said.
SB 802 clarifies state regulations so that hospitals don’t need to shut down generators during an extended outage.
Hospitals are currently allowed to run their diesel-powered generators without limits during a declared disaster. But most local air pollution districts have limits on how many hours a generator can run during normal times. Many hospitals are concerned that those limits apply even during a “Public Safety Power Shut-off,” which differs from a declared disaster.
“We need to keep our hospitals up and running at all times,” Glazer said. “They need to know they can run their generators as long as they need to without running the risk of fines or other penalties assessed by air quality regulators.”