Facing extreme fire weather conditions in Northern California – again – the largest utility provider in this economic powerhouse of the United States implemented its new policy for a “new normal.”
It turned out the lights.
The provider, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), cut the power to a half-million customers on Wednesday morning, with the potential for some 800,000 users to be shut off this week because of seasonal Santa Ana winds. The winds, strengthened as they blow through narrow canyons, combine with downed transmission lines and too-dry California vegetation to ignite fires that have historically devastated some communities.
Last November, when a rapid and roaring fire exploded into the town of Paradise, it claimed the lives of 85 people. Many of them were unable to flee because of age or health – it was a popular retirement spot – but also because of the California topography and the traffic jams on limited routes that ran out of town. Nearly 19,000 structures were destroyed in what the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s CAL Fire determined was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.
Wildfire-prone California is experienced and aggressive about preventing fire losses, and so are millions of residents who adhere to strict property maintenance codes meant to protect from flying embers and other threats. Climate change, though, has added to the challenge with higher temperatures and frequent drought. With few options, PG&E warned of the possibility of shutoffs in 34 counties, affecting many of its 16 million accounts – perhaps protecting lives, but also protecting itself from further wildfire liability.
The company occasionally shut down live transmission lines in the past; those cases usually involved smaller numbers of customers in isolated pockets. But in May, California fire investigators confirmed PG&E equipment was the cause of the Paradise fire. It’s not the only fire in which PG&E is held responsible, and in September the utility agreed to a massive US$11 billion settlement for the Paradise blaze, as well as extreme wildfires that raged in Northern California in 2017. A separate deal in June saw another $1 billion payout for fires that happened in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
Another catastrophic wildfire isn’t a risk that either the utility company or their customers want to take. Their insurance companies, with $24 billion in losses in just two preceding seasons, have grown wary of the wildfire risk too. PG&E itself filed for bankruptcy this year; the company says it will still compensate victims but there’s some question about just how successfully.
So the lights are going out in parts of San Jose – home to PayPal, eBay and other 21st-century household names. The progressive City of Berkeley, at the vanguard of most U.S. climate initiatives, planned medical evacuations for residents who depend on electricity for life-saving home health equipment. Thousands of people rushed to buy gas before pumps were powered down and get cash from the ATMs before they’re temporarily useless. They stored water, charged phones and worried about refrigerated food, lost wages and traffic safety.
While the PG&E solution to the “new normal” may prevent a fire this time, it opens questions about long-term infrastructure investment to withstand climate shocks. California embraces clean energy for a low-carbon future, but how will it be delivered? The utility has agreed to bury power lines underground as Paradise rebuilds – the faulty tower near Paradise last year was 99 years old – but that’s not true for many California locations. Nor is it likely to be enough as climate challenges mount.
Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at University of California Los Angeles, adds that shutting off power is not a long-term solution and creates risks of its own. “It should be viewed as a very temporary stopgap while more realistic and equitable long-term solutions are explored,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, another utility – Southern California Edison – warned that it too may need to cut off the electricity in order to avoid wildfire disaster.