Record power shutoffs in California are set to become the new normal

Vivian Ho
Photograph: Mike Eliason/Associated Press

Amid fierce winds and dry conditions, the utility company that services more than a third of California will cut power to an unprecedented swath of the state as a preventative measure against wildfires.

And with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) at fault for two of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history in just the past two years, major power shutoffs are set to become a new normal for a state gripped by the climate crisis.

Starting early Wednesday, PG&Ewill shut off power to portions of 34 of the state’s 58 counties, affecting almost 800,000 homes and businesses. The preventative shutoff will not be the first the utility has undertaken this year, but it will be the largest, with parts of Silicon Valley and the coast affected.

Related: California utility cuts off power to thousands amid wildfire threat

“I wish we weren’t in a situation where, in maybe one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the world, we are turning power off to large swaths of the population every few weeks,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy program at Stanford University. “But it is better than what we’ve been through, and I very much hope that we get through this fire season without a repeat of 2017 or 2018.”

PG&E declared bankruptcy in January, in part because of potential liabilities from its role in some of the 2017 northern California fires and the 2018 Camp fire that killed a total of 129 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

Investigators traced the origins of some of the 2017 fires to trees falling on power lines, in some cases trees that should have been cleared by PG&E because of their proximity to the lines. In the Camp fire, a tower constructed in the 1920s, well past its projected lifespan, was implicated as the cause.

The utility has submitted plans to update its infrastructure, moving its poles and power lines underground in areas of high fire risk, as well as plans to trim vegetation where it could affect its lines and conduct more safety inspections of existing infrastructure.

A Pacific Gas and Electric lineman works to repair a power line in fire-ravaged Paradise, California, in 2018. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

But Wara pointed out that such plans will take time – time that California does not have, given the current weather conditions. To prevent the scale of disaster the state witnessed in years past, power shutoffs may be the best course, he said.

“Is it a huge inconvenience? Yes. Is it going to be dangerous? Yes,” Wara said. “There are lots of risks on the other side. Someone could die because they have a medical device. But it avoids this risk that still exists in the system of igniting catastrophic fire during really dangerous conditions when things can happen so fast that there is no possibility of fire suppressant being effective.”

Wildfires have always been a part of life in California, but not to the level of devastation that required routine major power shutoffs. “There were bad fires in the 20th century, but more or less, there was a power system that worked,” Wara said. “I think what’s different is the weather extremes are much more extreme and that’s a predictable effect of climate change.”

PG&E should have been maintaining and updating its infrastructure before the crisis reached this point, said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network.

“PG&E should be held to higher standards than this,” she said. “No one wants to see another fire like the fires we’ve seen in the past, but we have to remember that the problem that these shutoffs are hopefully going to address are PG&E’s negligence and incompetence, and PG&E’s propensity to ignite fires.”

Now PG&E customers must bear the burden of navigating possibly days without power, with businesses losing money and people in possibly unsafe situations, Spatt said.

“Consumers would rather have their power shut off than have their homes and businesses burnt down, but they would also rather have a utility that didn’t start fires,” Spatt said.

Michael Zuccolillo is a town councilor in Paradise, a town almost completely incinerated during the Camp fire. The region has experienced a number of planned power shutoffs since the dry season began, forcing restaurants and banks and other businesses to close for the day.

“Theres got to be a better solution then what were doing,” he said. “You can’t tell the public we’re building a great fire resistant system and then turn it off when theres a 20 mph wind … It sounds like something that would happen in the 1900s.”

  • Dani Anguiano contributed to this report.