Oct 9, 2019

Axios PM

Good afternoon: Today's PM — edited by Justin Green — is 540 words, a 2 minute read.

1 big thing: California turns off the lights

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

America, 2019: 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:

Bonus: Pic du jour
Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images

People wave as Turkish soldiers prepare to cross the border into Syria.

2. What you missed
  1. Joe Biden called for Trump to be impeached. Video
  2. The strike against GM is now 24 days old, with the UAW's chief bargainer telling members that job security remains a key sticking point. Go deeper
  3. Fitbit will move its production out of China amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. Go deeper
  4. The alleged shooter who killed 2 people outside a synagogue in Germany this morning used the platform Twitch to livestream the attack. Go deeper
  5. California is the third state this year to pass major renter protections in response to sky-high housing costs. Chart
  6. Ronan Farrow’s new book alleges that Matt Lauer, former co-host of NBC's "Today" show, raped his colleague Brooke Nevils at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
3. 1 culture thing

There's a new target in the rising China cold war: the shortform video app TikTok, with Sen. Marco Rubio calling for a review of ByteDance's merger with Musical.ly.

  • "In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Rubio said Chinese-owned apps 'are increasingly being used to censor content and silence open discussion on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese Government and Communist Party,'" Reuters reports.