Environment

'There are lives at stake': PG&E criticized over blackouts to prevent California wildfires

Key Points
  • Pacific Gas & Electric cut off electricity to 179,000 customers in California in the face of a new wildfire threat.
  • Southern California Edison also warned of power outages to 308,000 customers.
  • Preemptive outages have come under deep criticism by those who argue that the blackouts threaten lives and local response efforts to fire emergencies, and shift responsibility from the company to the public.
  • Utility equipment has been blamed in the last several years for some of California's most destructive wildfires.
VIDEO1:1601:16
Raging wildfires in California force tens of thousands to evacuate

California's largest utility is under severe scrutiny by state regulators and customers over its rolling blackouts that have left millions of people without power.

Just two weeks after a massive power shut-off that the company acknowledged it mishandled, Pacific Gas & Electric announced on Wednesday that it will cut electricity to 179,000 customers in California in the face of a new wildfire threat. Southern California Edison, the state's second-largest investor-owned utility, also warned on Wednesday of power outages to 308,000 customers.

Utility equipment has been blamed in the last several years for some of California's most destructive wildfires, and now the companies are using rolling blackouts to protect dry landscapes from power lines that could overheat and spark deadly fires.

But the preemptive outages, or Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), have come under deep criticism by those who argue that the blackouts threaten lives and local response efforts to fire emergencies, and shift responsibility away from PG&E.

"This is a utility owned by shareholders that is shifting risk from its own corporate entity to the public," said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California.

"It's shifting risk to individual homes and businesses that lose power and then can't operate," he said. "Are we now living in a society where fundamental basic services are cut off regularly to protect corporate interests? They can't impose this burden on people."

The company says that customers can now expect rolling power outages for another 10 years as it upgrades its electrical systems in response to more extreme weather conditions in California, which are driven in part by climate change.

PG&E has defended the outages as critical for the safety of its customers, but apologized for its handling of the blackout on Oct. 9-12, which shut off electricity for millions of people, some without warning.

"Making the right decision on safety is not the same as executing that decision well," the company's CEO Bill Johnson said at a California Public Utilities Commission meeting on Friday. "PG&E has to be better prepared than it was this time."

Six of the 10 most destructive fires in California history were started by electrical equipment. PG&E's equipment has sparked 19 major fires in 2017 and 2018. The utility was blamed for last year's Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people. SoCal Edison is under mounting scrutiny over potential links to the start of the Saddleridge fire in Sylmar. Edison's power lines also started the 2017 Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that killed two people.

PG&E was not immediately available for comment. A SoCal Edison spokesperson told CNBC that the company understands the power outages can be disruptive, but that "We don't take these decisions lightly. Always be prepared for an outage."

"It's not a good situation. It's unbelievable in fact," Gleick said. "It's hard to know what the cutoffs do in terms of really reducing fire risk, and a critical issue is how much of this fire risk is due to PG&E's insufficient investment over the years of reducing fire risk."

Blackouts are low-tech way to prevent fires

Some industry experts say that given the dire circumstances, utilities like PG&E have no choice but to initiate power shut-offs to prevent wildfires.

Others believe that the power outage situation could potentially speed up the state's efforts to remake its electrical infrastructure, and invest in microgrids and distributive solar generation.

But PG&E's recent power shut-offs forced businesses and schools to close, and endangered people with certain health conditions. Low-income residents also struggled to replace food that went bad in their fridge.

"There are lives at stake," said Jack Brouwer, an engineering professor and director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine.

VIDEO5:2405:24
Judge clears the way for Elliot, bondholder plan regarding PG&E bankruptcy

"I can't over emphasis the calamity that these events cause at the neighborhood level. Hundreds of health care facilities don't have back-up generators," he said. "If you're out of power for an hour, that's fine, but for a couple of days — those lives count as much as those that would be lost in a fire."

The blackouts could also seriously hamper local response efforts for fire emergencies, Brouwer added.

"Emergency facilities of fire personal don't have back up power, as a result, they have less of an ability to combat fires," he said. "Just opening a door to let a fire truck out are inhibited by these power shutoffs."

Some people are demanding that PG&E bury power lines underground, which some other California utilities have started doing. However, burying power lines underground would cost about $3 million per mile, according to PG&E, which has roughly 81,000 miles of overhead lines and 18,000 miles of transmission lines.

Brouwer pointed out some other approaches that utilities can use to reduce fire risks, but said that regulation and policy in California hasn't been sufficient for that technology to be used instead of the power shut offs.

One approach is implementing microgrids, which use power sources like solar to provide electricity for residents across multiple buildings and eliminates the need to transmit power over long distances. However, they can take years to build and can be expensive.

The costs of blackouts can also be high. The cost of PG&E's preventative power cuts could be upwards of $2 billion, according to some estimates.

"Sadly, the state has learned too well in recent years the level of destruction climate change-induced weather events can have on our communities when combined with negligent maintenance of electrical infrastructure," Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said during the emergency hearing on Friday.

"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."