Early in the week of October 7, 2019, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) announced that it would likely be shutting off power to large swaths of Northern California in order to help minimize the acute risk of wildfires due to predicted conditions of extreme winds and dry air. Although this process, referred to as de-energization as well as public safety power shutoff (PSPS), is not without precedent (San Diego Gas & Electric has sporadically practiced PSPS since the late 2000s), PG&E’s PSPS promised to be, and did become, by far the largest public power shutoff in California history. By mid-week, starting in the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 9, PG&E began cutting power to thousands of homes and businesses, and continued cutting power in more counties into Thursday evening. Estimates of units that lost power range from 700,000 to well over one million. While most had their power restored by Friday day, some areas still did not have power over the weekend. Even from PG&E’s perspective, the shutoff did not go well. From their website consistently crashing, to being unable to give clear times of energy shutoffs and being unable to indicate when power would be restored in different counties, to setting up just one bare-bones shelter per county during the blackouts, the company appeared ill-prepared for their action taken (see ‘This Did Not Go Well’ from the New York Times).
Upon announcing the PSPS, even before it actually shut down parts of the power grid, public backlash to PG&E’s decision was immediate. PG&E, the largest utility company in California – and, importantly, one that is privately owned by investors and not by the public – had already been embroiled in controversy in recent years for being found at fault for its power lines causing devastating wildfires. In late January 2019, the utility formally filed for bankruptcy protection in response to more than $50 billion in liability claims, including for, most recently, the Camp Fire which burned down the town of Paradise, CA and claimed eighty-six human lives.
While temporarily shutting down the energy grid might be a strategically useful way to prevent wildfires from sparking, we must not lose track of the larger history that got us to this point, and the questions this episode raises. How did PG&E become a private corporation beholden to its investors, rather than to the California public to which it provides gas and electric? Has private gain usurped public safety as the number one priority? See for example this #powerpocalypse twitter thread which has been retweeted over eight-thousand times. Governor Gavin Newsom has also forcefully stated: “This is not, from my perspective, a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement [by PG&E] over the course of decades.”
In this developing story we will highlight and examine a number of angles surrounding energy use and utility companies in this age of rapid climate change, especially as questions of ethics and justice interlace with thorny issues of privately owned energy, public safety, public health, and public trust.
For an overview, see “Why Is This Happening? Answers to Your Questions on the PG&E Shutdown,” KQED, October 9, 2019.
Also see the anticipation of this PSPS strategy being more frequently used: Wildfire-Driven Power Blackouts: Coming This Year to a Community Near You?, KQED, May 30, 2019.
Concerning the question of public trust and PG&E’s future relationship with state lawmakers, see “After Outages, PG&E Faces Cloudy Future in Sacramento”, San Francisco Chronicle, October 13, 2019.
A KQED piece earlier this year discussed the ways in which newly appointed Governor Newsom could respond to PG&E bankruptcy protection filings. Newsom relayed that he would try and work with PG&E but take a tough stance on them since his interests are beholden to the people of California, not to the utility giant. He was quoted even back then as saying: “PG&E, with respect, has not been a trusted player in the past. They have admitted to knowingly misleading regulators in the past — the very recent past… When it comes to our engagement with PG&E, it’s trust, but dare I say verify. And let me underscore verify.”
See also news and analysis pieces questioning the reality of a public takeover of PG&E: Could California Take Public Ownership of PG&E?, Pacific Standard Magazine, February 7, 2019.
See also the section, ‘Why Can’t the State Take Over PG&E and Solve This Mess?’ in the recent KQED overview article: “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, though there’s no real model for a state taking over a publicly traded utility of this size. We also have yet to see the political will for this to occur. One reason is that taxpayers would have to take on the financial responsibility that just bankrupted PG&E — liability for its aging, unsafe electrical grid.”
Locally Sourced Power and Microgrids
Our energy grid is vulnerable. Locally sourced power may be the answer,University of California, News, October 16, 2019.
Some are arguing that it is in the utility giant’s best interest to use this PSPS tactic as an increasingly frequent practice, since the company is only liable for wildfire damage caused by its downed powerlines and generators, and not for other losses such as lost productivity and income during a blackout. State Senator Scott Wiener ( D- San Francisco) recently stated, “Right now, PG&E has a strong financial incentive to go broad with planned blackouts because of financial liability.” Earlier this year, Wiener introduced a state bill to regulate planned shut-offs including compensating customers and local governments for losses incurred during the outages.
A number of articles are also covering how the most vulnerable – many elderly, those with chronic conditions, those with specific medical needs – are acutely affected by blackouts, such as when vital medical devices lose power.
For the Most Vulnerable, California Blackouts ‘Can Be Life or Death’, New York Times, Oct 10, 2019.
It’s Not Just the Lights. Outages Shut Off Medical Devices at Home, KQED, October 10, 2019