Blackouts may be coming back to California. PG&E, the state’s largest utility, announced Tuesday it may have to shut off power again to nearly 200,000 customers. Why? Oh, you know, the usual: wildfire risk.
Many parts of northern California, including around San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Jose, are under a red flag warning for extreme fire weather. The National Weather Service is warning that winds could “gusts 35 to 45 mph, locally higher in canyons and exposed ridges... Any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.”
In response to these conditions, PG&E is expected to confirm Wednesday whether it will, in fact, turn the power off again this week. This may become the new normal for California as climate change increases the risk of large fires as forests heat up and dry out. At the same time, strong winds threaten to down power lines that ignite all that dry, flammable brush. Last year’s Camp Fire is a prime example of those conditions playing out. The fire was the most deadly and destructive in state history. But PG&E infrastructure has been responsible for more than 1,500 wildfires across the state.
The new blackout policy is a way to prevent fires from sparking up in the first place, and could become more common as the climate crisis deepens. PG&E’s executive has suggested that the blackouts could be a thing for another 10 years while the company works to improve and upgrade its infrastructure to reduce the risk of igniting fires. The utility gave us a taste of the future to come earlier this month when it cut off power to nearly 800,000 customers, which amounted to 2 million individuals. The outage lasted three days for some households.
Elected officials aren’t too happy about the way the first blackout went down. Governor Gavin Newsom has demanded PG&E offer compensation to customers and small businesses. His office is also investigating the decision-making process behind the blackout, including missteps for how it informed the public.
Living without power ain’t easy. Some people need to keep their medical equipment plugged in; others need access to refrigerators to keep their medicine cold. And California can get hot. (That’s, in part, why it’s so easy for it to catch on fire!) People—especially the elderly and young children—need to stay cool with the help of air conditioning. That makes the blackouts in many ways a public health issue.
The only reason PG&E is turning the power off during fire weather is that it neglected to address infrastructure problems like overhead wires in flammable places. Now, it’s working overtime to make up for its inaction—which will cause trouble for the people who rely on the company for their power.
Update 3:15 p.m. ET: PG&E confirmed that it would be shutting off power for 17 counties Wednesday. Shutoffs will begin at 2 p.m. local time and are expected to last into tomorrow.