Blackouts used to be disastrous. Now there’s a bigger threat

By Daniel Cusick, Thomas Frank, Anne C. Mulkern | 10/10/2019 07:04 AM EDT

Transmission lines are seen through smoky skies during the Camp Fire in November 2018. The deadly blaze in California was blamed on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Transmission lines are seen through smoky skies during the Camp Fire in November 2018. The deadly blaze in California was blamed on Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Terry Schmitt/UPI/Newscom

More than a million people in Northern California lost power yesterday in an intentional blackout that reveals the stunning measures utilities and state officials will take to ameliorate the risk of wildfire as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which provides electric service to 5.4 million customers in California, said it cut power to 800,000 of them to protect people, work crews and property from a potential outbreak of wildfires. It’s unclear how many people would be affected, but it stands to far surpass the number of homes and buildings that would lose power.

The move comes as California grapples with an extraordinary string of destructive wildfire seasons. Last year’s was worse than any other. More than 8,000 fires burned 1.8 million acres statewide, shattering past records and punctuating scientific warnings that climate change is altering the frequency and ferocity of wildfires.


And PG&E was at the center of it.

State investigators blamed the utility’s electrical lines for igniting the Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in state history. The firestorm raced across Butte County, north of Sacramento, and incinerated the town of Paradise. Eighty-five people died and 19,000 homes and businesses were destroyed.

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, said climate change is intensifying wildfire danger while the state’s power system is "maladapted" to deal with the growing risks.

"The infrastructure that we have was not built with this risk in mind," Wara said. There are arguments, he said, about whether PG&E should trim trees more, but "the straw that broke the camel’s back is the changing climate."

"In order to address the problem, we’re going to have to invest enormous amounts of money in adapting our infrastructure to a new weather and climate regime to make it safe," he said.

The move by the utility yesterday, termed a "public safety power shutoff," or PSPS, is a last-resort measure approved by the California Public Utilities Commission to prevent fire from damaging or destroying active power lines. A PG&E spokesman said the first PSPS occurred in 2018 but that yesterday’s blackout was the largest to date.

The utility said the shutoff would extend "across significant portions of its service area in response to a widespread, severe wind event." The concern was that 60- to 70-mph winds could down power lines and transform sparking equipment into a roaring firestorm. Weather forecasters said the wind conditions combined with low humidity and dry vegetation made the state’s landscape tinder for a disaster.

Climate scientists say such conditions are consistent with what California and other Western states can expect as the climate warms and that addressing fire risk from overheated power lines is a major challenge, especially in California. The state’s high consumption of electricity — second in the nation — combined with its physical characteristics make it susceptible to catastrophe.

Yesterday’s blackouts set off a cascade of business closures and public rants against PG&E, the state’s largest public utility. But those costs — reputational and financial — might seem smaller than the burden of being held responsible for another climate-related disaster.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection in January amid mounting lawsuits and potential liability amounting to $30 billion for its role in the 2017 and 2018 wildfires. Its liability for the Camp Fire alone exceeded $10 billion. Executives also pledged to make the company’s power delivery system more resilient to wildfire and other extreme events.

Under its state-mandated wildfire safety plan, PG&E said it would install stronger utility poles and make other grid improvements to more than 7,000 miles of power lines over the next 10 years. The company also said it would work to clear vegetation, inspect power lines, install sensors and cameras, and take other measures to reduce fire risk.

"PG&E faces especially significant wildfire challenges due to the size and geography of its service area," the utility said, noting that its roughly 70,000-square-mile service area contains "substantially more" area with high fire threat than the service territories of California’s two other utilities combined.

Critics say PG&E hasn’t moved quickly enough.

"PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe," state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district lost power, told the Los Angeles Times. "These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical."

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) wrote to his 1.5 million Twitter followers that the blackouts are needed "to protect communities against the real threat of wildfires due to existing weather conditions."

"Our first priority is to protect people and to ensure that communities are safe," Newsom wrote.

But many of PG&E’s customers, including some wildfire victims, appeared less concerned about wildfire than going days or weeks without electricity. Local officials said the blackouts could displace thousands, including elderly and medically dependent people, and could have a rippling effect on Northern California’s economy.

Yesterday afternoon, PG&E cautioned customers who rely on electric or battery-powered medical devices such as breathing machines, home oxygen or dialysis that it was "critical that you have a plan in place for an extended power outage."

Few seemed to know what that meant as the blackouts began. Others questioned whether PG&E was trying to protect customers or its shareholders from future liability from power line-caused fires.

"These outages are for your protection, more than the public’s! You’re covering your assets!" one PG&E customer posted to Twitter under the hashtag #poweroutages.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican who represents Paradise, said in a statement that the shutoff is "unacceptable."

"PG&E’s decision to protect itself from liability at the expense of hardworking Californians will not be tolerated. … Millions without electricity is what a third world country looks like, not a state that is the 5th largest economy in the world," he added.

But Patrick McCallum, a lobbyist with Up From the Ashes, a group representing 29,000 victims of recent fires, said many residents would rather lose power than lose their lives.

"It is not fun to not have electricity," and it’s an issue for hospitals and schools, he said. "Any of us that almost died as we did in the Tubbs Fire would far rather have them power down."

Meanwhile, fire risk in Northern California jumped from "moderate" to "high" yesterday, a troubling sign as fire season advances into fall, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Southeastern California, from Santa Barbara to the Mexico border, was expected to see high-risk conditions today and Friday, the center predicted.

The high-risk areas take in three of the state’s largest cities — Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, all with more than 1 million people — as well as San Francisco.