Oct 9, 2019

California turns off the lights

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."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

California's power utility to cut off nearly 800,000 customers to avoid wildfire risk

A cellphone displaying a PG&E power alert. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the California power giant, said early this morning that it has begun shutting off power to almost 800,000 customers in a bid to prevent fires when strong winds arrive.

Why it matters: Via the San Francisco Chronicle, "For PG&E, the shut-offs will mark a high-stakes test of a program the now-bankrupt company developed after being implicated in two years of catastrophic infernos."

Go deeperArrowOct 9, 2019

PG&E returns power to most California customers, but thousands remain in the dark

Restaurant owners use candles and a flashlight in Sonoma, California, Oct. 9. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP via Getty Images

PG&E said Thursday it restored power to nearly 328,255 customers since the Oct. 29 weather "all clear" was given for areas in northern and central California, though 36,745 customers remain without power.

The big picture: PG&E faces an investigation by the California Public Utilities Commission over its series of power shutoffs, which have affected millions and aimed to prevent the spread of wildfires during high-wind periods and dry spells. There are currently 15 fires spreading throughout California, per the Los Angeles Times.

Go deeperArrowOct 31, 2019

California to open investigation into PG&E for power shutoffs

Streaks of lights from vehicles drive along highway 24 during the PG&E power outage in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday. Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

The California Public Utilities Commission announced Monday it will open an investigation into a series of power shutoffs by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) that were meant to curtail wildfires.

Where it stands: PG&E began to cut power to more than 2 million people over the weekend in an attempt to prevent further fires. The Commission says it will examine how public safety power shutoffs are conducted in the future and seek to "drive down risks of ignitions from utility infrastructure, risks that result from power loss, and the disruption to communities and commerce."

Go deeperArrowOct 29, 2019