Here’s why California is experiencing massive power outages and why that should concern us all

Oct 13, 2019 by

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has cut the power on millions of Californians. It is a pre-emptive move to cut the company’s liabilities for potential wildfires. The announcement and subsequent handling of this forced blackout has been chaotic. Finding a working map on either of PG&E’s website or elsewhere has been difficult, and PG&E has not been entirely clear on when and where any of these moves are happening and being made. Has there been a catastrophic weather event? Are we in a state of emergency? No. The weather report has been predicting high winds and dry weather. This is not a new weather phenomenon in California. So what is really going on?

PG&E owns California’s power grid. They have a monopoly. Historically, PG&E has shown itself to value profits over safety. They were rightfully found liable for the 2010 San Bruno, California, pipeline explosion that cost billions to both California and PG&E. The problem was they cut corners on inspections. Since that time, the energy company has promised it was taking safety more seriously. But in recent years, preventable wildfires have erupted throughout California, and PG&E’s avarice seems to have been the root cause each time.

In the last two years, PG&E has settled lawsuits for billions of dollars, been convicted of numerous fire-related felonies, and entered bankruptcy because company executives were unwilling to spend the money required to update and maintain their energy infrastructure. To be clear: Sending enormous swaths of California into a blackout doesn’t entirely diminish the chances for wildfires. People must rely on real fire, including candles and fireplaces, when faced with a blackout. What PG&E is doing in California right now is limiting the company’s liability if a wildfire breaks out.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters these blackouts, while probably needed right now for safety reasons, didn’t need to happen” if PG&E was managed halfway decently. For decades, PG&E diverted spending money from building out the infrastructure and maintaining old power lines to executives’ pockets and lobbyists fighting regulations. If PG&E had done what a business is supposed to do, they wouldn’t have found themselves in bankruptcy court. They wouldn’t find themselves losing liability cases seemingly every other day. They wouldn’t ask California legislators to try and cover their toxic business model under a ‘too big to fail’ defense.

Of course, both Democratic and Republican state legislators, Gov. Newsom included, have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from PG&E. This has bought the private company legislators willing to try and figure out how to keep the criminally managed company solvent.

To be clear, PG&E has already settled with the government and has promised to trim thousands of acres of trees, a safety measure it should have long ago accomplished. At the end of September, less than a month ago, PG&E told a federal judge “that the company had completed 760 miles out of the 2,455 miles of power lines where it intends to take extra steps to cut back vegetation.” That’s less than one-third of what they promised to do and are required to do. That doesn’t include inspecting their electrical grid, something that PG&E lawyers have moaned would be too expensive to do. Not too expensive to do? “PG&E pumped out $4.5 billion in dividends and let the tree budget wither.” That’s Judge William Alsup, who has been overseeing their probation, a result of the San Bruno explosion.

For many years now, advocates have pushed for the energy giant to move its power lines underground, in order to protect California from power line-to-tree wildfires. PG&E has argued that this kind of infrastructure remodeling would cost upward of $1 million-per-mile, and considerably more in cities. And while the costs would be very high, PG&E has a well-documented history of literally diverting more than $100 million in gas safety and operations money collected from customers over a 15-year period,” in order to pay extra bonuses to executives and bump up shareholders’ profits.

But even when PG&E decides to just cut people’s power while trying to eke out profits and drag its feet on infrastructure upgrades, the company don’t even have the decency to come up with a plan that isn’t completely dangerous and detrimental to their “customers.”

And let’s be clear, PG&E doesn’t want to lose any more money because of their bad business actions. As NBC News reports, the energy company has “said customers wouldn’t be reimbursed for lost business, housing alternatives or spoiled food and medicines.” Their reasoning is because this is a safety measure, not an outage.

And so, PG&E will continue to hold the most populous state in the union hostage to its poor business and public safety decisions. While this most recent set of blackouts sticks out because of size, PG&E has been using this technique on tens of thousands of Californians since last year.

 

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