Think California's Preemptive Blackouts Are Scary? Buckle Up

Photo: AP

At midnight on Wednesday, California’s largest utility begun cutting off power to customers across the northern part of the state. The rolling blackout came with just a day’s warning as intense fire weather is expected to whip up across the region.

The gusty winds have caused power lines to snap and, on the back of dry, hot conditions, spark massive wildfires in recent years. PG&E, the utility in question, is looking to reduce that risk by cutting the juice for up to 800,000 customers in the coming days. That translates to more than 2 million people. SCE, the electric utility for much of Southern California, is also considering a planned blackout. The move exposes how brittle our systems are in the face of the climate crisis, which is making conditions that are ripe for large fires worse. It also raises questions about how private companies handling public services are preparing for the coming onslaught of climate-fueled disasters.

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PG&E filed for bankruptcy earlier this year after being saddled with massive liability for sparking last year’s Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in California history. The company paid out more than half a billion dollars to the towns and county affected by the fire as part of a major settlement. Infrastructure managed by the utility has also caused 1,500 other blazes. In an effort to cut down on the fires and limit future liability, PG&E is now just cutting customers’ power rather than risking live wires sparking the next major firestorm.

If it was only an isolated incident, it would be extraordinary. But the fact that it’s happening on our increasingly sweltering planet is what’s truly cause for alarm. The past few years have taught us that the systems that are the bedrock upon which society stands are liquifying in the face of climate change.

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program, tweeted that the PG&E blackout could result in anywhere from $65 million to $2.5 billion in losses over the entire planned outage area. That low end of the spectrum only looks at costs to residential losses while the high end includes commercial and industrial impacts and lost productivity.

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PG&E is hardly the only utility to operate a grid overwhelmed by climate change. An intense heat wave resulted in a blackout in New York this summer. Puerto Rico’s grid was wiped clean by Hurricane Maria two years ago, contributing to the thousands of deaths on the island and one of the longest blackouts in world history. While the blackouts in California won’t be nearly as long or widespread as what happened during Maria, they could still have major impacts on people who rely on refrigerated medicine or medical devices that need to be plugged in.

“Historically, when people lose access to electricity for extended periods of time, there can be dire consequences,” Leah Stokes, an energy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Earther in an email. “Particularly vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the disabled.”

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Suddenly, a planned blackout could still prove deadly. From an actuary’s perspective, that may be a worthwhile tradeoff when faced with a Camp Fire-like event as the alternative. But the fact that we’re even considering that tradeoff shows just how screwed the current grid is.

“It’s long past time for us to get serious about reducing the impact of our infrastructure on climate change, and also getting ready for the impacts of climate change on our infrastructure,” Costa Samaras, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation, told Earther. “In the power sector, that means big energy efficiency and deep building retrofit efforts, local distributed solar and storage, and transmission lines that aren’t as big of a fire risk and can handle extreme heat days. There are always questions of ‘how will we pay for it,’ but there is also a very large costs associated with doing nothing, which it looks like the Bay Area is paying now.”

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Then there are the political institutions we’ve relied on. PG&E and other California utilities are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. The agency allows utilities to pursue what it calls “de-energization” in the name of public safety. PG&E’s policy set in September 2018 allows them to notify customers they’re cutting power with as little as one hour’s notice, though their goal is 48 hours notice (that didn’t happen this time around).

Instead, millions of Californians were left to scramble to figure out if they would be without power or not after the utility announced it could cut power in 34 of California’s 58 counties in the coming days. PG&E’s site showing where the blackouts could happen crashed shortly after it announced the plan, leaving many in the dark about whether they would, well, be in the dark.

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“We are certainly entering new territory here with these public safety power shutoffs,” Stokes said.

This is happening in a state with strong regulations and enforcement mechanisms pushing to transition to new forms of clean energy. The government acknowledges the risk climate change poses, including making forest more flammable. And it has a robust (by American standards) social safety net. Yet the whole endeavor feels almost like an eighth-grade science project set in the fifth largest economy in the world. Imagine what could happen in another state with weaker governance under similar circumstances, let alone in the developing world.

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It could also lead to unintended consequences. Both Samaras and Stokes raised the prospect, for example, that more Californians could turn to dirty diesel generators for backup power in the coming years until battery storage drops in price and becomes more widespread. PG&E has already done as much, installing them at highway tunnels to ensure the tunnels stay open to traffic. The turn to diesel could also worsen air quality and speed along climate change, further increasing the risk of fires. And the generators and traffic could incidentally spark a fire similar to what happened with last year’s deadly, firenado-spawning Carr Fire.

All this means we need new ways of thinking about how we get power. That, of course, includes solar, but it may mean turning to microgrids or turning to community-scale renewables. And in places like California, it means burying power lines. Ultimately, it also may require people to move out of harm’s way or see the risks increase to the point that insurance becomes unattainable. Add in the risk on the coasts, inland waterways, or, basically anywhere, and it’s clear that if this week’s California blackout seems bad, we haven’t seen anything yet.

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