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‘A victim of their own failure’: Why PG&E’s massive power shutdown in California was inevitable

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Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is shutting off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses amid dry conditions in an effort to prevent fires.
Wochit, Wochit

SAN FRANCISCO — In cutting power to more than 2 million California residents Wednesday, Pacific Gas and Electric once again earned the wrath of citizens and politicians alike.

But, others note, the public utility was damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t go with the extreme measure, enacted in an effort to avoid once again sparking wildfires as fierce winds kicked up around the state.

PGE was forced to declare bankruptcy earlier this year after being held liable for tens of billions in damages resulting from many of the two dozen deadly wildfires that flared in 2017 due to downed power lines.

“I would say this outage is justified, but it’s coarse,” says Scott Lewis Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The impact of this is so huge that it will probably encourage more discussions about what we’ll do in these cases down the road,” he says. “In the future, it needs to be more refined.”

PGE’s approach certainly was more sledgehammer than scalpel, affecting more than 30 counties across the state, where it provides power to some 16 million of California’s 40 million residents.

California power outage QA: What you need to know

What’s more, the utility warned that it could take days to restore power because all power lines would need to be inspected for possible wind-related damage before electricity could once again flow.

In fact, some 25,000 miles of PGE lines are involved in this week’s preventive outage, says company spokesman Jeff Smith.

“Our aim is to restore power 48 hours after the weather has passed, but customers should prepare for an extended day outage, especially when you have so many shutoffs going on,” he says. “With over 30 counties, that’s a lot of wire we need to inspect.”

Smith says that due to the changing climate and the state’s recent wildfire history, such public safety power shutoffs, newly instituted this year, “are necessary to keep customers safe.”

California’s rising fire danger

The utility’s outage track record is wanting. Data published by the California Public Utilities Commission this month shows across all three utilities it regulates in California, there have been 4,082,970 customer hours of pre-emptive outages since the end of 2017.

Of those, PGE accounted for just over half the total outage hours, although San Diego Gas Electric customers were most likely to experience an outage, racking up 2 million hours of outages in the same time period across their relatively small, 4,100- square-mile territory.

Fire increasingly is a part of the California energy puzzle. Fire itself, of course, is not an unnatural part of the landscapes here, it’s part of what created them in the first place and will continue to occur.

However as the climate warms, areas that were already hot and subject to drought will only face more fire danger, says Brian Harvey, a professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Long-term, it’s something we’ve got to grapple with,” he says. “How do we best design our infrastructure to be able to live in these fire prone environments?”

‘We are not a third world country’

That question proved too lofty for many state politicians, who were quick to rail against PGE’s blanket disruption that canceled classes, closed stores and put hospital patients and the infirm at risk.

Typical of the firestorm of criticism was State Sen. Scott Wiener’s comment that “this is a completely unacceptable state of affairs,” and State Sen. Jerry Hill telling the local ABC affiliate that “we are not a third world country.”

Many believe PGE should be working toward creating a network that is much more robust when it comes to dealing with the elements.

Moving ahead with a sudden shutdown of power for millions “is like saying ‘I don’t have good brakes so I’m not driving the kids to school anymore,’” says Michael Aguirre, former city attorney for San Diego who has filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the implementation of the wildfire bill Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law this past July that would leave ratepayers in the position of having to pay for future utility liabilities.

“Their system should be able to handle 50 mph winds,” Aguirre says. “Because PGE has not maintained their system in accordance with the requirements, they may not start fires, but are inflicting other damages and losses on customers.”

The impact of tree trimming

Mark Tomey, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, a non-profit group that advocates for PGE customers, echoed that sentiment, placing the blame square at the utility’s feet.

“PGE is in a tough position, but it’s a position of their own making,” says Tomey. “The company knows what has to be done for a long-term solution, like tree trimming, insulating wires so they don’t spark, inspecting transmission towers, but they’re behind. So now they’re disconnecting millions of people because they can’t depend on their safety measures due to past negligence.”

PGE has only finished about a third of the tree trimming work it had planned to tackle this year, due partly to a personnel shortage, according to a filing the company submitted to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PGE’s probation related to a 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno that killed 10 people.

“This is a problem that has been years in the making,” says Tomey. “They’re a victim of their own failure.”

Picking up the pace of their tree-trimming operation may not provide much comfort, especially for those Californians living in particularly rural areas such as Paradise, which was completely wiped out by a firestorm.

Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips is concerned about relying on tree trimming to help mitigate against future fire-related disasters. She says that such trimming tends to open up “long, narrow clear cuts that will be filled in with fire-prone grasses and shrubs, so this may not be the right thing to do from a safety perspective.”

In fact, PGE is ignoring a vast array of alternative solutions to its powerline woes, says Edward Goldberg, CEO of Perimeter Solutions, the company that developed, manufactures, and supplies the branded long term fire retardant known as Phos-Chek, the red slurry dropped from air tankers during fire disasters.

“We have been working with PGE for years, until recently our cooperation with them was limited to spraying our product directly onto their power poles to prevent loss of infrastructure during a fire disaster,” Goldberg says. “We have been trying to work with PGE on what we see as an obvious solution to treat areas around electrical infrastructure in lieu of power shutoffs.”

The ‘new normal’ for PGE?

Fire science professor Stephens says that PGE can work to shift from the relative blunt tool of massive power disruptions to more targeted outages, given some time and funds. Specifically, he cites the ability of San Diego’s power company to surgically target particularly risk-prone ridges with outages that don’t affect the entire city.

By contrast, he says he’s waiting for PGE to shut down power any moment to Berkeley, “which will safeguard our hills, but also take down the entire university.”

Financial fallout: PGE files for bankruptcy amid California wildfire lawsuits, citing billions in claims

For Max Fuentes, a former utility lineman turned industry consultant out of Sacramento, PGE still has many questions to answer when it comes to how it will deal with weather-related worries in the future.

“The minute you decide to shut all these lines down, do they have staged crews ready to start putting up new equipment to mitigate problems in the future, or it just, ‘Let’s wait it out’?” says Fuentes. “Is PGE they treating this situation like an emergency or is it the new normal. We all need to know what their plan is.”

Follow USA TODAY Network reporters on Twitter, @marcodellacava @eweise @gabbypaluch

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