Was Shutting Off the Power the Only Choice for California?

Given the current circumstances, yes. But it didn’t have to be like this.

power lines
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of people in Northern California are without lights, charged phones, or power for medical equipment after Pacific Gas and Electric cut electricity on Tuesday night, citing a severe wind event. The power could be off for days. This isn’t the first time PG&E proactively shut off power, but it’s the largest and longest shutoff. It’s a new kind of disaster, Slate writer and Oakland resident April Glaser, wrote Wednesday, even as it’s supposed to help prevent the larger disaster of a deadly fire. The National Weather Service had been predicting strong winds—they peaked at 70 miles per hour around 5 a.m. this morning—blowing into very dry areas, leading them to issue red flag warnings for swaths of the state. Residents were warned to be mindful of anything that could cause a spark, from chains dragging on vehicles to fresh cigarette butts.

Climate change is exacerbating the conditions that could turn even a little spark into a roaring flame, making summers warmer and vegetation drier, and lengthening fire season, National Geographic explains. Given the threat, isn’t PG&E’s decision—to shut off power lines vulnerable to being knocked over by wind—a necessary evil? It’s impossible to definitively weigh the suffering caused by an outage against the risks of another deadly fire, but it’s arguably a good move to make under the current circumstances. PG&E equipment is already the possible cause of several fires this year, as well as the cause of last year’s deadly Camp Fire. But the key phrase there is “current circumstances”—there are steps that could have been taken to prevent things from getting to the point where a multi-day blackout looks like a reasonable course of action.

First, maybe the most logical, safest thing to do in the face of increased fire risk is put the power lines underground where wind cannot blow them over. PG&E is in fact doing that in Paradise, California, the area that was destroyed by Camp Fire last year, the company announced in May. The process will take five years, and in the meantime, temporary hanging lines are serving the area. That means the problem of vulnerable lines won’t be solved for a while. It will almost certainly not happen everywhere in the state, where the majority of the PG&E lines are overhead.

An explainer from the San Francisco Chronicle lays out why: money. At more than $1 million per mile, underground lines cost more than double what overhead lines do, with the cost of converting from one set up to another even higher. It doesn’t even seem like laying them in Paradise was a no-brainer for PG&E, which explains in a press release that the choice to do so was also born out of convenience, since PG&E will also be there rebuilding damaged gas lines.
This “provides opportunities for joint trenching for both electric and gas infrastructure.” While PG&E notes that it has spent $300 million converting to underground lines since, it would take $67 billion to convert all of them, estimates Bloomberg.

But PG&E didn’t just put off what is perhaps the best safety measure in Paradise until after disaster struck; it delayed making updates to existing equipment. Even before last year’s Camp Fire, the company knew that aging transmission towers were a risk, the Wall Street Journal reported this summer. An internal presentation in 2017 noted that the towers needed to be replaced to avoid the possibility of “structure failure resulting [in a power line] on ground causing fire.” The company had continually pushed back updating the lines that ended up failing and sparking the Camp Fire, the Journal reported in February. Some of the towers had been around since 1921.

This history of negligence explains why “Californians have a toxic relationship with PG&E,” as Glaser wrote. Shutting off the power might have been the right safety call, in these conditions, which a Los Angeles Times editorial points out are the result of several factors, including climate change, expansion into rural areas, and how the forests themselves are managed. But the conditions include factors that were in PG&E’s control, too. It didn’t have to get to this point.