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California turns off the lights

PG&E text message
PG&E text alert notifying customers their power may turn off. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

2 million Californians face intentional blackouts because their bankrupt power utility is using desperate measures to prevent wildfires caused by its crumbling infrastructure.

The big picture: "Utilities malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated Paradise, Calif., and the 2017 wine country blazes," the Los Angeles Times notes.

  • Of the 20 biggest fires in California's history, 4 were caused by downed power lines.

Why it matters: Numerous signs indicate things could get worse.

  • Climate change: "The cumulative forest area burned by wildfires has greatly increased between 1984 and 2015, with analyses estimating that the area burned by wildfire across the western United States over that period was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred," per the Fourth National Climate Assessment.
  • Poor utility management: "As the most dangerous part of California’s wildfire season continues, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. says it has finished only about 31% of the aggressive tree-trimming work it planned this year to prevent vegetation from falling on power lines and starting more deadly infernos," the San Francisco Chronicle writes.
  • Poor public planning: California housing sprawl has entered fire zones that mirror the pattern of Houston and Miami building like crazy in flood zones.
  • No easy long-term fix: Estimates peg the cost of burying power lines — which would limit the fire risk — at a cool $67 billion.

The bottom line: Asking customers to tolerate rolling blackouts is hard for any utility, especially one as plagued by scandal as PG&E. But for now, it might be the best worst option.

  • The economic cost of this round of blackouts could exceed $1 billion, Michael Wara, an energy expert at Stanford, told Axios' Ben Geman.
  • “I would still trade this for what we have experienced over the last 2 years."

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