A new program aims to prepare residents for fire season by offering multiple power backup options and low-cost or free devices for qualifying Coastsiders. The effort joins Senior Coastsiders, Peninsula Clean Energy, Coastside Community Emergency Response Team, the Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities and Hassett Hardware to conduct outreach, help with applications and ultimately distribute backup batteries and solar and generator options to residents in need.

Senior Coastsiders Program Coordinator Casey McClung is the point person for residents who want to learn about which of four options — including portable and home-installed backup batteries — will work best for them and to get help signing up. Spanish-speaking residents can call Puente to be connected with resources. Those who rely on medical devices and live in an area that experienced two planned shutoffs last year can get a battery for free.

McClung has been reaching out to thousands of residents through flyers, emails and by cold-calling people who might qualify for the free backup batteries. She said everyone she’s spoken to has been interested.

McClung is also working to get the word out about Medical Baseline, offered by PG&E to lower the cost of energy and provide advanced notification of shut-offs to residents with certain medical conditions.

Last year’s outages had widespread effects on local residents, businesses and critical infrastructure. The entire Coastside grappled with sudden shut-offs and a lack of clarity as to when power would be restored.

This year, according to PG&E Marketing and Communications Officer Katie Allen, PG&E plans to notify residents two days prior to a planned shut-off and will communicate daily until power is restored. Allen said the utility is working to make planned shut-offs smaller and shorter by cutting up the grid into smaller pieces and installing generator-powered microgrids. The goal this year is to reduce the number of affected customers by one-third and to cut restoration times in half, within 12 daylight hours, as compared to last year.

“While PSPS is an important wildfire safety tool, we know that losing power disrupts lives, especially for those with medical needs and customers sheltering-at-home in response to novel coronavirus (COVID-19),” Allen wrote in an email. “Given this, we are focused on reducing PSPS events’ impact on our customers, without compromising safety.”

Peninsula Clean Energy Senior Manager of Community Relations Kirsten Andrews-Schwind said last year, the planned outages created emergency situations when residents who rely on CPAP machines were forced to stay awake all night for fear of falling asleep without their device. And during the pandemic, having a backup option when the power goes out is even more critical for high-risk Coastsiders.

“A lot of these residents are the same people that it’s most important to be sheltering in place because of the pandemic,” Andrews-Schwind said.

Last year, Cabrillo Unified School District Superintendent Sean McPhetridge decided to keep schools open during the planned outages, but with students learning from home this year, his work to make campuses more resilient may not see the light of day.

McPhetridge said he hasn’t received any guidance from county or state education officials on protocol for at-home learning during an outage, but said families should prepare for the possibility of widespread power and internet shut-offs.

While not every resident can qualify for Medical Baseline or a free battery, anyone looking to prepare for fire season can opt to purchase power backup for their home. Hassett Hardware is leading the distribution of the portable backup batteries, which can power one or two devices at a time.

Although the store plans to stay open during any outage, owner Eric Hassett is encouraging residents to get prepared now.

“For two-plus decades now, we’ve been working to promote and encourage emergency preparedness,” Hassett said. “And over the last couple of years, as we’ve encountered more issues with power outages, it’s only gotten more urgent.”

One local business has taken action to avoid last year’s troubles. Sam’s Chowder House Executive Chef and Partner Lewis Rossman said the lack of clear information from PG&E coupled with the timing caused the restaurant to lose an estimated $30,000 for each of the two days they weren’t able to open their dining room, not to mention electrician costs and losses while their internet went down. So this year, the restaurant has invested more than $50,000 to install a backup generator at the restaurant. While COVID-19 has delayed the full installation, Rossman said the restaurant has backup power ready to go for the coming fire season.

We’ve realized we have to take matters into our own hands,” Rossman said. “We can’t sit on our thumbs and wait for PG&E to come rescue us or give us an accurate timeline for when power is coming off or on. You have to be proactive; you have to expect it.”

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