California Might Have Electricity Tomorrow, It Might Not! ​Thanks, Climate Change! Thanks, PG&E!
Photo: Jonathan Quinn, Creative Commons license 2.0

As many as two million people in Northern California had their power cut off starting Wednesday, thanks to a decision by the area's biggest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) that high winds and dry conditions meant there was too much danger of the utility's power transmission lines and substations causing a massive wildfire ... again. Consider it a sneak peek at a future where power will be stable only for the very rich -- or consider it a sneak peek at the recent past in US-occupied Iraq.

The utility PG&E said it had no choice but to shut down the grid in order to avoid a possible repeat of last year's terrible Camp fire that wiped out the city of Paradise and killed more than 80 people. It was the deadliest wildfire in the state's history, and lawsuits from the fire were the final straw that led PG&E to declare bankruptcy earlier this year.

While PG&E insists it's solely the weather, not the bankruptcy, that drove the decision to shut off power this week, the shutdown is very definitely part of a pattern that Americans may soon be getting used to: As the climate warms up, it will just make sense for utilities to shut down the power rather than risk the liability costs from old equipment and putting off maintenance.

Oh yes, and then there's this little Information McNugget -- not from the fires, but from another PG&E disaster, the 2010 gas line explosion in San Bruno, California. At a January hearing, the federal judge in that case was pretty pissed off that instead of preventing future wildfires through aggressively trimming trees and brush near its power lines, PG&E had instead "pumped out $4.5 billion in dividends and let the tree budget wither."

No, that has nothing to do with raking the forests, stop that.

As Vice explains, PG&E just plain didn't wanna bother with doing maintenance, because that costs money:

Investors and analysts have said PG&E is worth around $20 billion, and the company still has the cash on hand to keep the state's lights on—just not enough to cover presumed tens of billions in eventual wildfire liabilities. Or, apparently, to maintain the equipment that allegedly caused those fires. The federal judge overseeing PG&E's ongoing probation presented a safety proposal for the utility that would see 650,000 workers remove 100 million trees and inspect and repair thousands of miles of line. PG&E claimed the plan would cost $150 billion.

And so it's a lot more cost-effective for the company to institute blackouts, because it's already on the hook for huge losses the company caused in the past decade, and simply can't afford to incur more losses. UC Hastings bankruptcy law expert Jared Ellias explained to Wired that the situation was made even worse for 2019 fires by a state insurance fund put in place by the California legislature earlier this year: While it will help cover losses incurred starting in 2020, the utility is pretty much on the hook for fires its equipment might cause before then. So that's

another reason for PG&E to protect itself at the expense of the ratepayers by turning off power, even if not really necessary. [...]

The company is currently controlled by the board of directors, who work for the shareholders, and the shareholders sit behind pre-bankruptcy fire victims in the pecking order [...] So from their perspective, if the board cares about the shareholders, any fire during the bankruptcy would wipe out the shareholders. And they have been trying very hard to avoid wiping out their shareholders."

And that's the miracle of the free market at work! Hey, while we're at it, we should also remind you that PG&E was among the companies that funded climate denial for years.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom slammed PG&E yesterday for the blackouts, blaming the company's business strategy for the mess:

"It's decisions that were not made that have led to this moment in PG&E's history and the state of California as it relates to our major investor-owned utility," Gov. Newsom said. "It is not conditions. This is not, from my perspective, a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement" [...]

"A desire to advance not public safety but profits. Over the course of years and years and years, the kind of hardening of the grid was not done," Newsom said.

You know what might be a good idea? Nationalizing the grid, or at least creating jobs modernizing it, making communities less tied to big utilities by promoting local microgrids. One thing that sure as hell isn't working is putting profits first.

[NYT / KQED / Vice / Wired / Mother Jones / KTXL-TV]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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