Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Wildfire risks have led the embattled California utility PG&E to order a preemptive electric grid shutdown, leaving more than 2 million at risk of losing power.
In an effort to avoid sparking deadly wildfires—and to protect itself from future liability—California utility company Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) shut off power to much of the Bay Area on Wednesday afternoon. The cause: high winds that were forecast to rake the region in gusts of up to 70 mph on Thursday. To preemptively reduce the chance of a downed line sparking a blaze, an estimated 800,000 utility customers in 34 Northern California cities like Berkeley, San Jose, Chico, and parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills will have their electricity service cut off over the next few days.
The most urbanized parts of the region, like downtown San Francisco and parts of Oakland, should be mostly untouched, but the scope of the disruption is massive: 800,000 utility customers translates to about 2.4 million individuals who stand to be left in the dark. The first 500,000 customers—many concentrated in West Marin County near Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais, the dry hills of Lake County, and wine-country counties like Napa and Sonoma—lost power on Wednesday.
(Map courtesy of Mercury News)
“We understand the effects this event will have on our customers and appreciate the public’s patience as we do what is necessary to keep our communities safe and reduce the risk of wildfire,” Michael Lewis, PG&E’s senior vice president of Electric Operations, said in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.
PG&E began the practice of preemptively shutting off its electricity grid during high-risk periods in 2018, after the utility’s fragile and poorly maintained power lines, surrounded by untrimmed trees, helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. More than 80 people were killed in the wildfire, and thousands of homes turned to ash.
Over the past year, four similar planned safety outages were held, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the PG&E shutdown. But those affected primarily Napa and Sonoma counties, and lasted only about 24 hours at a time. In 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric became the first California utility to cut power during dry conditions, according to the Wall Street Journal; its largest shut-off only affected about 20,800 people.
This Bay Area outage will be much longer: PG&E estimates some areas will be without electricity for up to five days. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told reporters he encouraged residents and businesses to prepare for up to seven. Even after the high winds dissipate, utility workers must inspect each power line, ensuring it isn’t broken or left on the ground, before turning it back on. (Gas service will not be affected, PG&E said.)
“The worst nightmare would be if you started a fire by turning on the power,” said Toney.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of this massive rolling blackout, affecting 2.5 million people. People rely on electricity for their medicine, their food & their livelihoods. This is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. We can’t let PG&E normalize these mass blackouts. https://t.co/H8DYpplwRi— Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) October 9, 2019
The historic safety shutdown is proceeding as PG&E is dealing with the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. After the Paradise tragedy and other recent safety mishaps (in 2016, for example, a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno killed eight people), the California Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation into PG&E’s liability last year, threatening to break the company up or have the public take it over. On the hook for an estimated $30 billion in wildfire damages, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. Late on Wednesday, amid the first night of blackouts, a judge stripped the company of exclusive control over its restructuring.
But in taking this unprecedented move to reduce the threat of a fire crisis, the embattled utility may be creating another, man-made one. Classes at many local universities and schools were canceled on Wednesday. Mothers are scrambling to save their breast milk. Wine shops are looking for ways to chill their stashes. Grocery stores are reporting shortages of supplies like batteries and water; fresh food could be left rotting on the shelves by the time the week is over.
Mobility is also being affected. Bay Area Rapid Transit trains are up and running, but with traffic signals out, vehicle travel is dicey. (PG&E tweeted that cars should be treating all traffic lights as four-way stops.) A blackout hit the Robin Williams Tunnel in Marin County on Wednesday afternoon, but traffic was still circulating through. Caltrans employees worked through the night to get the generators set up in Caldecott Tunnel, which connects hundreds of thousands of commuters into the East Bay, avoiding potentially crippling jams.
Residents who are disabled, or who depend on power to charge medical devices, refrigerate diabetes medication, and run oxygen machines, are most at risk in an outage like this, said Diana Hernandez, a Columbia University assistant professor who studies issues related to energy justice—how the vulnerable communities that shoulder the burden of producing energy face barriers to accessing it. While hospitals in the blackout zones have generators running, many outpatient clinics and urgent care facilities don’t.
“Ultimately, people have worse health outcomes” during a blackout, she said. “In the worst kind of situations, they may die.”
Update, 3:30pm Wed: If you are power-dependent for medical reasons and in a potential shutoff area, please use your own resources to relocate to an unaffected area. If unable to relocate and power loss will cause immediate life threat, call 911 for transport to an Emergency Room. pic.twitter.com/JtR2EIY06g— City of Berkeley (@CityofBerkeley) October 9, 2019
As Hernandez says, lower-income populations bear the brunt of the dangers and inconvenience associated with power disruption. Poorer residents are less likely to have access to backup measures, like gas and diesel generators—though those stopgaps also bring the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. Using candle illumination at night represents a different kind of fire hazard, and living without refrigeration is an extra challenge for families that are already food-insecure. A host of nighttime public safety risks increase during the blackout, due to lack of streetlights, security cameras, and alarms. In the Santa Clara County town of Morgan Hill, the city announced a 7 p.m. pedestrian curfew on Wednesday night, to prevent “pedestrians loitering in areas impacted by the power shutoff.”
What’s most maddening about the preemptive blackout, many California politicians and residents charge, is that PG&E—one of the nation’s largest investor-owned utilities—was compelled to leave millions without power because it failed to upgrade aging infrastructure.
“They are in bankruptcy because of their terrible management going back decades,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said, according to the Chronicle. “They’ve created these conditions.”
PG&E can ill afford another disaster. As peak wildfire conditions brewed again in Northern California this week, with low humidity levels and high winds, the company chose to take radical preemptive action. “What PGE is doing is trying to stop igniting a fire—trying to limit the chance of igniting a fire that could grow into a conflagration that has a very negative regional impact,” said Barry Moline, executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association. “The amount of financial loss in a day is miniscule compared to the financial impact of billions of dollars of loss from a wildfire.”
But shutting down the grid, Hernandez said, was also a “save your ass” decision for the company. “It’s a calculus that is made not thinking about their unique and important role in the delivery of a service that is not delivered by any other providers, and that is absolutely necessary for life.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf joined this chorus of disapproval from local leaders. “This is the type of interruption to lives that should not happen,” she said. “We are going to do it because we agree it is in the interest of the safety of people, but we have got to do better.”
PG&E’s decision may help it avoid another wildfire crisis, but it could still prove costly for company shareholders. The company should be held liable for a host of economic impacts related to the shutdown, says Toney. “We need to make the shareholders pay for lost wages, spoiled food, lost business, and extra government costs,” he said.
How much economic damage is the ongoing blackout likely to inflict? The director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford Woods Institute tweeted that he estimates costs could reach $2.5 billion. ”If one assumes only residential customer impact, $65 million,” he wrote.
It hasn’t helped PG&E’s case that public information about the scope of the outage has been spotty. The company’s online coverage map was down and crashing for the better part of Wednesday, and customers were left not knowing if an outage would start at noon, as planned, or later, or not at all.
In 2018, when PG&E warned users that there was the prospect of huge outages like this one, the company said it would work to set up Resilience Zones, where generators or microgrids would keep local services like grocery stores and police stations running in each jurisdiction. PG&E planned to get the first site up and running in Angwin, California, by June, but the project was delayed. Instead, PG&E set up a series of Community Resource Centers—local hubs in restaurants and parking lots, equipped with porta-potties, “bottled water, air conditioning, electrical charging, and seating for 100 people,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. This is what one of them looked like on Tuesday night:
A PG&E Resource Center set up tonight at Oakland’s Merritt College parking lot B. When/if the power goes out, people can come here for “restrooms,” charging stations and water. #abc7now pic.twitter.com/ryHttwn0Nq— watkowski (@watkowski) October 9, 2019
There is only one per county. They’re open only during daylight hours.
Are mass power shutdowns likely to become a new fixture of California living as climate change continues to exacerbate wildfire conditions? That depends in part on the future of the state’s energy infrastructure. PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian told ABC7 that the utility has been overhauling its safety procedures, doing things like “strengthening and hardening our system,” and installing weather stations and weather cameras in service areas.
Moline, from the California Municipal Utilities Association, says PG&E has also shown a commitment to getting its wild vegetation under control. “It’s going to be many years until they catch up, but I believe they’re investing whatever they can.”
But environmental advocates and utility experts have suggested that the scope of this fire season’s power crisis should speed the state’s efforts to rethink its electrical infrastructure entirely, by investing in microgrids and distributed solar generation, creating a new network of publicly run utilities, or just completely retrofitting PG&E’s existing gear.
In a way, there’s a leveling effect to a blackout like this, Hernandez says, and the discomfort it causes can be instructive. The affected power-outage areas span some of the most unequal communities in North America, from affluent Silicon Valley suburbs to remote pockets of rural poverty. But briefly, everyone is equally subject to the whims of a corporate entity; everyone is living in the same fear of their power going off. “We can all be vulnerable,” she said. “But for other people, it’s an everyday experience.”