PG&E shuts off power to prevent wildfires

Madeline Carpinelli, Managing Editor

After years of devastating wildfires in California and declaring bankruptcy, PG&E decided to cut off power to thousands of Californians throughout October to avoid more fires. In October 2017, catastrophic fires started, called the Northern California Firestorm, North Bay and Wine Country fires, killing 22 people and destroying 5,600 structures. These fires were caused by electrical equipment damage from high winds. The most deadly and destructive fires hit, the 2018 Camp Fire, shocking not only the state, but the nation. 86 people were killed and 18,804 structures were destroyed, which was a devastating loss. Blame quickly went to Northern California’s gas and power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, for not properly taking care of their equipment. They filed for bankruptcy on September 9, 2019. After an incredible amount of damage and backlash, PG&E created a plan to prevent more wildfires in the future. But with their crippling debt, their choices were limited. According to president and CEO, William Johnson, PG&E responded to the increased fires and risk of fire by implementing a new plan. This plan includes several procedures such as investigating and repairing equipment in high risk areas, creating tougher vegetation management and developing a more effective Public Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS. When winds get over 45mph, there is a high risk of vegetation coming in contact with distribution lines, creating a fire. This situation is the most common type of fire started by electrical equipment and it was the cause of the 2017 fires. PG&E’s plan ensures that distribution lines stay out of reach of vegetation. If winds are strong enough that contact does occur, the power will be out and there won’t be any ignition. Smaller PSPSs have been implemented by PG&E before in smaller and higher risk areas, only affecting a couple thousand customers. Although this October, PG&E cut power on a much bigger scale, presenting problems they had never noticed before. Power was cut off to hundreds of thousands of people and their biggest struggle was communication. Their website crashed several times, call centers were unavailable and online maps were inaccurate. People didn’t know if their power was getting turned off, when it was or when it was getting turned back on. Schools, businesses, transportation services, public safety resources and more were majorly disrupted. There were dangerous conditions for workers as well, who had to work long hours during the blackouts. According to Marybel Batjer, President of the California Public Utilities Commission, overall, there was a complete lack of communication and coordination on PG&E’s part.

“California will become more resilient. But resilience will not and should never translate to Californians being willing to put up with inadequate execution of measures that are supposed to keep them safe,” Batjer said.

Several Sequoia students in Redwood City and San Carlos experienced problems during the power shutoffs, disrupting their schoolwork, home life and more. With unclear times as of when the power would be shut off or it would turn on, complaints and questions arose.

“It was annoying how we didn’t have a concrete time of when the power would be back… everyone was telling me different times the power would come back on,” Senior Tara Ahsan said, who had her power out for two to three days.

For Moss Beach citizens, they also suffered a loss of running water since it comes from a well. Sequoia Spanish teacher, Evelyn Nadeau, had no power or running water for approximately three days.

“We have to prepare by making sure that we have enough water for consumption, using the toilets [and] washing our hands,” Nadeau said.

Many other problems were presented, affecting people’s everyday life. Some traffic lights were out on El Camino Real, appliances would break from being turned on and off consecutively and businesses were closed. Since refrigerators would break, people would lose a lot of food, that some families might not be able to afford to replace. Many were also confused as to why their power was out because their areas weren’t very windy or rural. Several solutions that people have suggested are PG&E should review their equipment periodically, bury their power lines and cut back on trees. They all could minimize the necessity and impact of PSPS. Unfortunately, there is one big obstacle when it comes to figuring out ways to prevent wildfires, and that’s money. After causing several fires and tons of damage, PG&E had to pay billions of dollars in lawsuits, leading them to become bankrupt. It’s likely that they’ve considered all these methods, but they all cost a lot of money that PG&E simply doesn’t have. The only solution that doesn’t cost money is turning off the power for their customers. Although the huge impact and backlash it created, PG&E simply didn’t have any other options. Now the question is what’s Northern California’s future? The threat of wildfires is still very pertinent, as the underlying cause, climate change, isn’t going away anytime soon. According to Johnson, “In 2012, the state’s elevated fire threat designation applied to 15 percent of our territory, a very large territory. Today, more than 50 percent of our territory has that designation.” Other cities like Sacramento and Santa Clara have their own gas and electric companies instead of PG&E. Sacramento’s gas and electric company, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, did not have any major PSPSs during the wildfire season and do not plan to have any. PG&E serves 16 million people in Northern and Central California, the
largest utility company in the United States.

“California is so large that I don’t think [PG&E has] the capacity or equipment to make sure that everything is maintained and working properly,” Nadeau said.

Some cities would likely benefit from creating their own municipal gas and electric companies because they can be more focused on their local area and customers. It can also take some of the pressure off of PG&E, allowing them to recover quicker. Several cities have already tried to buy the PG&E networks inside their areas, but PG&E has turned down all offers, including the city of San Francisco. Until PG&E can get into a better position financially where they can make some permanent fixes, it’s likely PSPS will be implemented for the next few years. After that, PG&E’s future is uncertain. It will likely get restructured or broken up and sold to Northern California cities. This entire situation has encouraged customers to consider solar panels, home batteries, and other forms of home energy production.