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Climate change: The intentional power outages in California will recur

What California went through last week was absolutely crazy.

In order to avoid forest fires in particularly dry, windy conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric – PG & E, the state's largest provider – has shut off power to approximately 738,000 people Intentional power outage, as in the history of the nation's electricity supply had never been there.

There's probably no pleasant way to do that, but PG & E did it very badly anyway. The residents had little warning, in some cases less than 24 hours. Nursing homes, emergency rooms, police stations and fire stations were looking for replacement generators. People with medical equipment or refrigerated medicines were seeking help in understaffed community centers, and 1

370 public schools were losing power. 400 of them sent 135,000 students home to their parents to find out about jobs they could not come to.

Highways, roads and intersections became dark without notice and caused traffic accidents. Food in freezers, houses and grocery stores rots. The telephone lines of the government were overwhelmed. In addition, the website of PG & E has failed.

Elizaveta Malashenko of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) told The New York Times: "It's pretty safe to say that this did not go well." It is not possible to know how much the blackouts cost the state, but Michael Wara of Stanford, an electricity policy expert in California, estimates the total will be between $ 1.8 and $ 2.6 billion.

If the rest of the country would be vaguely aware that there were blackouts in California, which many still do not fully understand, how ugly it was and how angry people are. And above all, they do not understand one of the craziest features of the whole situation: everyone agrees that it will happen again.

In fact, power cuts like last week may be a feature of state life for years to come. In FEMA region 9, which covers California, they are referred to as the "new normal".

In some areas of California, 15 or more power outages occur every year, lasting between two and five days. And although their effects can be better mitigated and regulators and legislators are thundering utilities to better manage them, there is little chance to eliminate them.

Large-scale, deliberate power outages are now a thing in California.

It's not just PG & E. All Californian utilities, in consultation with the CPUC, have decided that turning off electricity for large volumes of customers is safer under all circumstances than switching it on in conditions of high forest fire risk. All of them have plans to tackle the growing threat of forest fires, and all of these plans include recurrent public safety power shutdowns (PSPS).

Worse, with increasing blackouts, rates are also rising as utilities invest in lengthy maintenance and security measures. Soon, the electricity customers of the state will pay more for worse service.

How did California get into this semi-apocalyptic situation? It is a confluence of different trends and pressures, some of which are natural and some of human, all of which have been steadily developing in the background. Many people in both the public and private sectors have long had to look the other way to make this happen.

In Ernest Hemingway's The sun rises too a character is asked how he is bankrupt. "Two options," he replies. "Gradually, then suddenly." Here, California has recovered gradually, then suddenly: incessantly rising heat due to climate change, decades of poor land and forest management, hundreds of thousands of miles of aging power lines routed through dry forests billions of dollars of liability (and more Billions) are allocated through the bankruptcy of a corrupt, poorly managed, politically networked utility company and a future promising the nation's most expensive and least reliable power supply service.

Oakland, California is blackened; On the other side of the bay, San Francisco is still lit on October 10, 2019.
Ray Chavez / Media News Group / Mercury News on Getty Images

It's not pretty. In my next post, I'll look at some ways California can tackle this problem. I think this is the only true long-term solution. (No spoilers!)

However, in this post, I'll focus only on some of the key factors that drove the Golden State into this impasse, and explain why, like so many things about climate change, it's there not normal again.

When we talk about climate change, we start there, because whatever else is the confused history of California – and there are many things – it's a parable about the challenges of adapting to a changing climate.

California's forests have become tinderboxes.

In California, fires are becoming more common and more severe. For the past 10 years, the state has had five of its ten largest forest fires and seven of its ten most devastating. (These dire facts and more can be found in a report on forest fires and the future of California, commissioned by Governor Newsom in April.)

Two fundamental forces are to blame.

The first is climate change. Robinson Meyer vom Atlantik reported in July on a publication that found that the annual fire area in California has more than quintupled since 1972, a trend that is clearly due to the warming climate. The increase is mainly in hotter summers and more summer fires. However, the climate fingerprint becomes more apparent even with the advent of fires in the autumn.

In California, climate change is expected to lead to more frequent and intense droughts, followed by periods of intense rainfall that trigger the growth of dense undergrowth, which then dries and ignites in subsequent droughts. "Every degree of warming causes much more fire than the previous degree of warming," said climate researcher Park Williams told Meyer.

  Climate and wildfire

Gov. Gavin Newsom's Strike Force Report on Forest Fires and Climate Change

And the state is not alone: ​​research shows that climate change is already increasing the number of weather-related failures across the country.

The second factor that makes the state fireproof. Susceptible is a poor forest management. Earlier this year, journalist Mark Arax published an extraordinary reportage about the Fire in Paradise, the most destructive fire in California (before the PG & E considered a PSPS, but decided against it). In it he tells how in the 1990s, the state timber industry was dominated by rampant clearcuts. Varied, varied forests with alternating scrub and trees served as natural fire breaks. Forest fires came to them on a regular basis, as is natural and necessary for regeneration, but they did not spin out of control.

After a clear cut, the forests are replanted as monocrops. There are no natural breaks, no variations, making them extremely susceptible to fast-spreading fire.

And in the early 2000s, forestry operated by State Park Rangers – prescribed burns, scouring brushes, removal of deforestation – was disgraced by an ever-growing paramilitary fire department. "When Rangers joined the ranks of better-paid firefighters," writes Arax, "their numbers dropped to about 250, although the number of firefighters in the [Department of Forestry and Fire Protection] had risen to 7,000." Firefighters extinguished fires. However, the consistent fire fighting only increases the amount of dry, combustible material.

As the LA Times story shows, California still has sharp and poor forest management to this day.

More and more people are building (and rebuilding) in fire-prone areas.

California has a housing shortage This is mainly due to the fact that wealthier urbanites refuse to build more housing in urban areas near workplaces. The more people pour into the state, the higher the price of existing urban housing stock, and the development goes outward. More and more of this development is being pushed into the "Wildland Urban Interface" (WUI), where forest fires are more common and more difficult to combat.

Again, California is not alone. A 2018 study in PNAS found that between 1990 and 2010, WUI was "the fastest growing land use in the counterintelligent United States". This happens in many states.

  Houses in the wui

Gov. Gavin Newsom's Strike Force Report on Forest Fires and Climate Change

But he's particularly focused on California, where over one million houses were built in the WUI in the same years. In Mother Jones, Jeffrey Ball has a report on the state's terrible land-use policies that promote the spread and construction (and reconstruction) of fire-prone areas in dozens of different ways, including subsidized insurance. (See also this piece by James Temple.)

As a result, half of Californian citizens now live in areas of high forest fire risk.

  CA Fire Risk


Add all this – and add to warmth from global warming; unusually strong wind and low humidity for several years; bad deforestation practices with less preventive burns; More people live on wooded hills and hills in remote, fire-prone areas – and the result was a catastrophe.

2017 was the most intense and deadly forest fire season in the history of the state. In addition to 47 dead, 1.4 million acres and 9,470 homes and businesses were burnt down. Insured losses totaled an incredible $ 13.2 billion.

Then came 2018. July 2018 was the hottest month ever recorded in California. The state was five degrees warmer than the historical average. With more than 8,000 fires, 104 people were killed, 1.9 million acres burned, and over 19,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Insured losses were $ 12.4 billion.

And here's a fated peculiarity: California law legally binds utilities for the damage they do to forest fires, according to a doctrine referred to as "reverse condemnation" relief from that provision, but it was too late for PG & E serving 16 million customers in central and northern California. It turned out that its power lines caused many of the worst fires. In January, when the debt for this damage was below US $ 30 billion, the company declared bankruptcy.

So let's talk about PG & E.

PG & E is a steaming bunch of terrible management and debt, now at the mercy of a bankruptcy judge.

According to the Consensus, PG & E is the worst thing in California.

In addition to its nationwide natural gas pipeline network, the utility maintains approximately 42,000 kilometers of underground power lines and nearly 100,000 miles of overhead lines many of which travel through heavily forested areas. (In total, the state has more than 400,000 km of overhead lines.)

When power lines throw sparks or "sag" through over-voltage and touch plants or structures, or plants and trees grow too close to wires and are burned out, the sparks can cause intense forest fires produce. Between 2014 and 2017, California had more than 2,000 "firing events" caused by power lines, averaging 1.5 fires per day.

A government inquiry found that this was an aging PG & E mast that caused the campfire in November 2018, the deadliest devastating fire in the history of the state, killing 85 people and wiping out the city of Paradise.

Court records later revealed that PG & E devices caused 432 fires in 2015 and 362 in 2016. In 2017, their lines created the North Bay Fires, which burned 200,000 acres and were the largest forest fire disaster in the history of the state until the campfire. which in turn was caused by PG & E.

It has to be said that PG & E is facing a physically more difficult task than energy suppliers in Southern California. It manages vast areas of sparsely populated areas where there are lines that run through hundreds of miles of hilly and sometimes mountainous forest. With the state becoming a huge tinderbox and homes invading the wilderness everywhere, it's simply impossible to lay power lines for anyone without lighting a few fires.

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But it must also be said that PG & E has long been wildly corrupt, incompetent and comfortable with supervisors. It finances lavishly state politicians; State records show that it has donated to 8 out of 10 California legislatures. There were $ 208,000 for the election of Newsom.

Over the years, the coziness with the people who should supervise them has led to a relaxed safety culture. As reported by Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold for the Wall Street Journal, PG & E has been aware for years of mounting fire risks related to its rundown, outdated infrastructure. And despite much talk and much money paid out to tariff payers for this purpose, it has systematically neglected basic inspections and maintenance and done very little to improve its ability to predict, avoid or manage forest fires. Instead, it took all the money (about $ 4.5 billion) and paid the shareholders handsome dividends.

Arax describes the lawsuits filed by lawyers representing a class of more than 1,000 people who lost property in the 2017 and 2018 fires:

In their file, each attorney listed historical events as one Culture of mismanagement back. Corruption and cover-up that had spread to PG & E decades ago. A pattern of venality began, they argued, in the early years of the company, and became more relentless in the 1980s and 1990s when PG & E decided to give up gains and bonuses under the supervision of the California Public Utilities Commission, their guard dog put executives – and dividends to shareholders – about security.

In court this year, federal judge William Alsup was confused. "The drought did not trigger the [Camp Fire]. Global warming did not ignite the fire. PG & E has started it. What do we do? If the judge just turns a blind eye and says, "PG & E, continue your business as usual. Kill more people by causing more fires?

This case resulted in five guilty verdicts for deliberately violating federal security laws and one case of disability, with a fine of $ 3 million and five years probation. Alsup also called on the company to provide a patchy response to the story of the Wall Street Journal, forcing PG & E executives to tour Paradise to see what they had done. (They did it in secret.)

Bankruptcy could protect PG & E from further litigation and force all litigants to negotiate. With a debt of $ 30 billion (compared to less than $ 13 billion a year in operating revenue for the power business) and stocks analysts claim could reach zero, PG's ultimate fate lies in it & E in the hands of a bankruptcy judge, although the CPUC and the legislature will want to take the floor.

In the meantime, the utility is struggling to meet maintenance and fire safety requirements in the face of a huge backlog. And it is very careful. More fires this year could mean even more liability. There is every reason to prefer a PSPS – for which it is not liable – to a low risk of fire, which could explain why the failures last week were so blunt and extensive. As the LA Times reported, the utility "shut down nearly 100 transmission lines" that stretched "over 2,500 miles and connected to an additional 25,000 miles of distribution lines that also lost power – more than enough to wrap around the earth once. "

Customers and advisors complain that the company overreacts for its own financial interests. The senators of the state interfere.

Customers who lost it in the first PSPS now have power again, but more is coming California Power Grid Age, Condition, and Vulnerability Revealed.

Californian power grid is deeply and fundamentally vulnerable In addition, all state-owned utility companies must present comprehensive forest fire prevention plans, which utilities have now submitted and approved by the CPUC.

PG & Es Plan unveils this and promises to attack the maintenance backlog and take other measures But it is also clear that such work will take up to a decade and there will be more PSPS in the meantime Essentially the same.

Utilities Can Learn Better Forecasts, more Precise Alignment Power failures, better customer alerts, and better plans to address the basic needs of the community in the event of power outages, which are unlikely to be remedied. With the growing forest fire risk, sporadic power outages can be a daily occurrence in one of the world's most advanced economies. And that will be accompanied by rising rates.

Very little is known about the economic costs or the health and safety risks of these planned power outages. (Catherine Wolfram of the Energy Institute in Haas discusses some of the difficulties in measuring damage.) However, their costs are enormous in the event of medical crises, lost work and simple stress and insecurity.

  US FIRE-POWER-California-wildfires-weather

A sign that prompts PG & E to turn on the power supply during the power outage in Calistoga, California, on October 10, 2019.
Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images

As we have already seen, PG & E has been criticized for not shutting off the power supply in front of the campfire, but it has also been criticized for being shut down last week. As awful as PG & E is, there is no gain for this game. The Californians do not want to change their place of residence, zoning or building codes or their electricity bill. However, they will be genuinely angry if their power is turned off regularly and they want someone to blame. It's going to be an absolute political shitty show for PG & E for the foreseeable future – or anyone who runs his fortune once it's over.

What can you do about it? Does California have to accept this condition?

To a certain extent, the unpleasant answer is yes. There are certainly better and worse measures that the state could take, better and worse results, but there is no going back to the "normal". It can adapt to the riskier, more volatile environment that is emerging, and may even learn to unfold. However, this will bring enormous changes.

In my next post I will look at some of these changes. Some need to improve the existing network and fire safety procedures; some have to do with where and how the inhabitants build; some have to do with the reform (or dissolution) of PG & E; However, the most important change, the inevitable and necessary change, is a change in the structure of the electricity system itself, the way it is planned and managed, in order to reduce the dependence of the faraway Californians on the rather unfortunate centralized authorities. 19659081]
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