PG&E Put the Burden of Halting Fires on Millions of Californians

Critics evoked an image of a developing country’s shoddy grid and scolded PG&E for not having a safer system. PG&E said the disruption was needed because of high-wind fire danger and threat of trees slapping power lines.

by Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle / October 14, 2019

(TNS) — Midnight Tuesday in Santa Rosa hit 86-year-old Doug Jones like a punch to the chest. One minute he was asleep. Then all lights in the house went dark and the oxygen machine he needs to keep breathing every night clicked off.

Jones jerked awake, yanked the now-useless power cord out of the machine and plugged in a portable battery to get the air flowing through his hose again. That bought him a few hours of sleep.

Next came the hunt for somewhere to recharge his machine’s battery. At 86. With damaged lungs that need extra oxygen to pull a breath.

The epic PG&E planned power outage of 2019 had begun, and Jones and nearly all of the other 2 million people throughout Northern California who lost juice over the next two days were unhappy about it.

Some, like Jones, had to scramble to power crucial medical devices. Others watched freezer loads of food spoil. Schools closed, clinics rushed medications to generator-equipped hospitals, gas station lines looked like the 1970s shortage crisis, parks and museums from Muir Woods National Monument to Shasta State Historic Park shuttered and hotels endured waves of cancellations.

Critics evoked the image of a developing country’s shoddy grid and lambasted PG&E for not having a safer system. PG&E said the disruption was necessary, given the high-wind fire danger that triggered the outage and a recent history of record-breaking fatal fires caused by wind slapping trees into power lines.

A wildfire, the kind the outage was meant to prevent, is a concentrated catastrophe. But to average folks like Jones, the shut-off — just the latest and biggest of several this year — was a sprawling aggravation, if not in some cases a serious health threat.

Sure, it was good to prevent firestorms, said Jones, a retired firefighter. But it shouldn’t have come to this.

“PG&E didn’t take care of things the way they should have, so we suffer the consequence of their poor management,” Jones said Wednesday, sitting in an emergency PG&E community power station to recharge his oxygen machine battery — which takes six hours to recharge for six hours of use. “You make do. But you don’t like it.”

So now, as the frantic week of finger-pointing, unknown economic losses from zero power and mini-panics begins to recede, the biggest planned power outage in state history leaves a flurry of questions: What really created this mess — climate change, drought and building too close to wildlands jacking up fire danger, or incompetence by PG&E? What can be done to prevent shut-offs, or to at least conduct them better?

And with millions of people suddenly realizing how difficult it is to find batteries or generators in a massive outage, can they adequately get ready for the inevitable next one?

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, called the outage “PG&E’s latest stunt,” saying the utility’s “continued recklessness tells me something more sinister is on their agenda” — in other words, pressuring the state so it can legislatively wriggle out of financial responsibility for fire damage.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, proposed a bill to restrict shut-offs, and even Democratic presidential candidates piled on, with Bernie Sanders blasting PG&E for “greed and corruption.”

Right or wrong, everyone agreed that shutting down power during 45-mph-and-stronger wind gusts reduced red-flag fire danger. And indeed, by Friday, PG&E crews inspecting powered-down lines had found 50 instances of potentially dangerous weather-related damage.

But was it worth it for everyone, in every location?

“It’s clear the utility made a calculation here. There are huge costs if they start a fire, but they only bear a reputational cost with an outage — and the outage becomes a cost borne by other people, not PG&E,” said Severin Borenstein, faculty director at UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute. “So they have an incentive to be what they would call ‘cautious,’ but what an economist would call ‘excessively cautious.’

“I’d call this ‘the interim normal,’” he said. “PG&E will work on hardening its grid and we will all get better at making things easier during the outages, but it’s going to take a few years.”

After initially hunkering down against criticisms, PG&E was in apology mode by Thursday night. CEO Bill Johnson, noting that the company’s updates website crashed, its outage maps were inconsistent and its call centers were overloaded, said: “Put simply, we were not adequately prepared to support this operational event.”

Asked if the public should expect more outages on this scale, in this way, Johnson said, “This is not the future any of us want to live in.”

He and his staff promised to work hard to fireproof the grid, noting that PG&E is spending $2.3 billion this year alone on fire prevention measures such as installing more than 90 fire-watching cameras, building 400 weather stations and stepping up its tree-trimming program.

Critics say it has to go further than that, to catch up on years of underfunding preparation, upgrading and other safety measures. The utility says it can only go so fast.

But some argue that PG&E could save money in the long run with bigger investments now in high-danger fire zones — which have become more numerous in recent decades as climate change ups the temperature, droughts turn vegetation super-dry and overcrowding pushes home-building farther into wildland areas.

PG&E has said that it faces an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from the past two years of wildfires, including last year’s Camp Fire and its worst-ever 85 fatalities.

That’s money that might have been better spent on prevention not just by PG&E, but by communities that need to prep for fire danger.

“The system PG&E has was not developed as a whole,” said Steven Weissman, a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission. “It started 114 years ago and grew over time — as in, oh, there’s a new town here, we need a new transformer there. It was incremental, and it seems like the complexity has caught up with them. They don’t seem to have ever recognized the challenge.”

The challenge was on full display this week not just in inadequate system safety measures, but in the herky-jerky way shut-off notifications went out.

The first wave of shut-offs came quickly and on schedule Tuesday, but PG&E delayed the second phases repeatedly as weather conditions shifted — and then didn’t send out follow-up notifications to all customers, exacerbating tensions among people trying to prepare.

This wasn’t the first time the utility ran into this kind of trouble.

In June, PG&E cut power to 22,000 customers in the North Bay and some parts of the Sierra foothills, and as one of its “lessons learned from event,” the utility listed “evaluating the balance between notifying customers in advance of a potential event to provide adequate time to prepare and the reality that changing weather conditions may later revise that scope.”

It seemed that, by last week, PG&E hadn’t learned its “lesson” — or maybe striking the balance of providing customers advanced warning with adjusting to changing weather is simply an ugly science.

Ironically, these shut-offs were once demanded by many of the very people enduring them now.

Two years ago, when the Wine Country fires ignited, eventually destroying nearly 9,000 structures and killing 44 people, a universal call rang out for PG&E to shut off power in fire-prone areas when dangerous winds kicked up.

Little did most people seem to know what it would feel like to get what they asked for.

“OK, I can see cutting power right in the area where there’s danger, but where I live near Santa Rosa Junior College was turned off while it seems like all of downtown still kept its power,” said Nancy Calavan, 69. “Did they really have to turn me off? There was no wind where I live. No big danger.

“My gut says this is a little bit of retribution for people being so pissed off at PG&E,” she said — a contention PG&E has denied. “A lot of people are going to be more pissed off than they were before.”

Critics have given PG&E little credit for what it did well: managing to turn the power back on relatively quickly. Within a day or so, the utility was able to inspect nearly all electrical lines, which totaled 25,000 miles — enough to encircle Earth.

Eventually, such widespread inspections may not be necessary. But Michael Wara, director of the energy and climate program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, estimated it will be at least 10 years before PG&E’s electrical delivery system is improved enough to bring blackouts to a minimum. So everyone had better get prepared.

“People who have resources are going to get generators and batteries, and people who don’t will be left in the dark,” said Wara, who lost power at his Marin County home for two days.

“So we are going to have to be innovative in a way that doesn’t leave anyone behind. It’s not going to be cheap, but it’s a big state and a lot of people here have money, so we can make it easier on people.”

He said the state should be working harder to help homes become more energy-independent. That includes making solar power easier to install, and requiring that electric cars be able to run home electrical systems, as is done in Japan.

“Come on, this is California. This is a solvable problem,” he said.

One man ahead of the curve on that advice is 68-year-old Bob Cipolla.

His newly built house in the Larkfield community just outside Santa Rosa went up in flames in the Wine Country fires, and now two years later, he is days away from moving into its replacement on the same lot. But this time, mindful of outages — and a community-minded desire to reduce the need for more fire-risk electrical lines — his home is a marvel of energy efficiency.

Thirty-four solar panels on his roof pump 10.85 kilowatts into a battery to run the home on typical days, as well as during blackouts. An all-electric car sits in the garage next to a charging station. Extra insulation turns his walls into a temperature-retaining fortress, and every appliance from the water heater on down is ultra-energy efficient.

“We’re at the whim of Mother Nature, and with the way we use electricity, we’re vulnerable,” he said, staring up at the hill just east of his block that two years ago was a wall of flame marching down to wipe out his neighborhood. “But I really love it here, so there wasn’t much question about staying put.

“I’m just doing it a little smarter this time.”

Chronicle staff writers Matthias Gafni and J.D. Morris contributed to this report.

Kevin Fagan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kfagan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @KevinChron

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