Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A fresh round of wind-fanned wildfires and planned power outages is darkening the fate of Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest electric power utility.
More than a dozen wildfires are burning throughout the Golden State this week as California’s season of high climate anxiety has officially arrived. But this year’s autumnal dystopia—the coming of the Diablo and Santa Ana winds, which often whip up conflagrations during hot, dry weather—comes with an extra twist: unprecedented planned blackouts by the state’s most despised electrical utility.
As in 2017, this season’s biggest monster is in wine country north of the Bay Area. While the Getty Fire has swelled to more than 600 acres in densely populated West L.A. as of Tuesday morning, the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County had burned more than 75,000 acres and was just 15 percent contained. Nearly 200,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. On Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. To fight the flames, officials are deploying “every resource available,” Newsom said.
Meanwhile, Pacific Gas and Electric—the vast utility that provides power to roughly one in 20 Americans across a service area that includes San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno, and Oakland—has undertaken the largest planned blackout in state history. On Sunday night, PG&E said it had shut off power to 940,000 homes and businesses, affecting as many as 2.7 million people throughout Northern California.
The blackout was a last-resort decision made to prevent the utility’s electrical equipment from sparking more wildfires as powerful winds whip the region, according to PG&E CEO William Johnson. “We understand the hardship caused by these shutoffs,” he told reporters last week. “But we also understand the heartbreak and devastation caused by catastrophic wildfires.”
But this fire prevention tactic is raising serious questions about the future of California utilities under climate change. Last week, PG&E acknowledged that a live transmission line in the same area had malfunctioned immediately before the fire erupted Wednesday night, and a broken jumper wire was discovered on a transmission tower. PG&E had shut off its smaller distribution lines to customers in that area, but kept the higher-voltage transmission lines on, for reasons it has not explained.
It wouldn’t be the first time its equipment sparked disaster. PG&E’s electrical infrastructure is believed to be responsible for five of the 10 most destructive fires in California since 2015, including the Camp Fire of 2018 that obliterated the town of Paradise, killing at least 85 people and causing an estimated $9 billion in damage. In January, PG&E declared bankruptcy due to $30 billion in liabilities it faced as a result of that disaster and other fires.
While the planned power outages are meant to avert further destruction, they also take another kind of toll. Blackouts don’t just cut off basics like light, refrigeration, and cell service: They block access to critical medical equipment, threaten public safety, and hamper cities from delivering essentials like clean water. This is PG&E’s third planned blackout since the beginning of October, but some customers received only a few hours of notice before their power went out this past weekend. And the power is out in areas far from the ferocious flames.
This may be the future: Johnson told regulators last week that he expects this cycle of wind-and-darkness to be part of the wildfire season status quo in California for the next 10 years.
Newsom has openly aired a sense of deep frustration with the utility. “We should not have to be here,” the governor said over the weekend. “We will hold them to an account that they have not been held to in the past.”
But the question of how PG&E—and California utilities more broadly—should move forward is wickedly complicated. There are many safety improvements that PG&E can take, including burying its lines (albeit at a truly staggering cost of $67 billion). For lower-hanging fruit, experts point to San Diego Gas and Electric as a model. After residents sued SDG&E for causing a 2007 inferno, that utility invested $1.5 billion in a network of weather stations, cameras, and satellite technology to monitor fire risk; it has not caused a major fire since.
While PG&E has recently taken some similar steps in the last year, its long history of negligent safety practices and prioritizing shareholder returns means that the utility is now playing catch-up. For example, the New York Times found that PG&E spent millions of dollars less on operations and maintenance than it was supposed to in the years leading up to a deadly 2010 pipeline explosion in a San Francisco suburb, even as it collected more revenue than state regulators had authorized.
That the utility seeks regulated profit is no controversy—that’s how investor-owned utilities work. But some critics of PG&E are calling for big changes to how Northern California’s power grid is managed. Newsom has suggested that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway should bid to take control of PG&E, keeping its investor-owned model in place but changing out its leadership. (Buffett has brushed off this idea in the past.) Another idea is to transition the utility to public ownership, a notion that Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted in support of on Monday.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has proposed another option: Buying out PG&E and turning it into a nonprofit, customer-owned cooperative. Now he’s rallying other cities to back his plan. “We need to align the financial interest with the public interest,” Liccardo told the Wall Street Journal last week. “We hope there will be recognition that this structure better addresses the public need and we’re looking to start the drumbeat to enable all of us to march together.”
PG&E has stated that its assets are not for sale. It has submitted its own financial reorganization plan, which is subject to the approval of a bankruptcy judge who seems highly attuned to customers’ interests. Proponents of public ownership will likely make their case directly to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the state agency that regulates and advises the sector. And those regulators may well be swayed by staring down a decade of PG&E’s blackout strategy. A showdown over who or what controls PG&E appears to be in the making.
Meanwhile, who or what is protecting California’s power lines? The monumental destruction of the last few fire seasons did trigger a number of changes to state law, designed to protect ratepayers and residents. Last week, CPUC approved a controversial $21 billion wildfire liability fund that lets utilities partly off the hook for damage caused by sparking equipment, so long as they follow certain safety rules. (PG&E won’t be eligible to tap that money until it exits bankruptcy.) The state has also established a Wildfire Safety Advisory Board to advise CPUC’s regulatory efforts. Part of that board’s charge is to hire an independent company to inspect electric poles and wires in parts of California at highest risk of wildfire. In 2021, a new state Office of Energy Infrastructure Safety will take over the job of setting and enforcing those safety requirements.
But many factors complicate California’s ongoing ability to balance its power needs with the risk of catastrophic fire. One is the state’s sprawling pattern of development. California developers keep adding housing in communities placed precariously close to highly flammable wildlands, which in turn require ever-more-far-flung electrical service. Newsom has defended this tendency, stating that restricting buildings in those areas—as some lawmakers have proposed and many Californians say they would support—would defy the state’s “pioneering spirit.”
In so many ways, the saga of PG&E in fire season shows how contradictory the fight against climate change’s most disastrous effects can be. A major driver of both carbon emissions and wildfires is residential sprawl, yet that dimension of California’s wildfire problem is going largely unaddressed. Stringing high-voltage wires near dry, dense forest and brush is an innately incendiary mix. Even SDG&E, that model utility in Southern California, has told regulators that it “cannot entirely eliminate that risk.” It also oversees planned outages, albeit in a fairly targeted fashion. As fire dangers grow by the year—fed in part by the state’s own habits—blackouts may be the better-of-two-evils prevention measure that Californians learn to embrace.