For many Northern Californians, the weather swept through the region in the middle of last week was not very remarkable.
Breezy dry winds blew in from the north and east over a landscape that had dried up for months. Heavy rains increase the risk of forest fires. So far, however, it had been a relatively mild fire season, and this was a relatively typical October wind storm.
Yet, the winds prompted Pacific Gas and Electric to trigger an unprecedented deliberate power outage across much of the state, disrupting millions of lives and costing billions of dollars in economic losses, according to some estimates. And now, with hindsight, a key question remains: Was all this disruption really necessary?
Schools, universities and businesses were closed for days. Food in freezers thawed and spoiled. Oxygen and CPAP devices for sleep apnea did not work anymore.
Local government officials hurried to find generators to power traffic lights and key tunnels, and neighborhoods where there was no threat of forest fire plunged into the darkness.
PG & E asked people to visit their website to find out if their lights would stay on, but the site crashed quickly when millions did just that; The utility company led the people to its call centers, but they were also overburdened.
The blackouts and confusion around them led to a renewed criticism of California's largest power company, led by Governor Gavin Newsom, who called that shutting off the "unacceptable" result of PG & E's "greed and mismanagement", a sentiment which is mirrored by angry residents of darkened neighborhoods. When the week came to an end and PG & E was working to restore power, it was again talked about curtailing or even destroying the beleagured utilities, and there were unpleasant comparisons with power outages that a former governor, Governor Gray Davis, did to his job had tasted.
At a press conference on Thursday, PG & E CEO Bill Johnson apologized for the agency's poor communication and acknowledged that the utility was "not adequately prepared," but insisted that the dangerous weather was his hand Enforcing San Jose Community Center Thursday afternoon, after PG & E cut off power to their home in the Silver Creek neighborhood, Helen McArthur, like many others in the Bay Area, was dubious. "I do not think that's justified," McArthur said. 1
As much as Newsom and others criticized PG & E, they showed little willingness to make the decision that triggered the blackouts last week: whether it's power failure or non-dangerous weather.
Someone must have this choice. And in retrospect, it's always 20/20.
After last week, officials want PG & E to be more careful when it comes to turning off the power because the failures can be disruptive.
But you do not have to look far for a counterexample: PG & E considered switching off the power supply near the town of Paradise in the early morning of the campfire and then decided against it – the weather conditions did not warrant that, the utility company said – with catastrophic results.
PG & E officials explain their Public Safety Power shutdowns as a "choice between hardness or safety".
"We chose security," Johnson said.
For Newsom and a number of PG & E critics, however, this was a "wrong choice" and the company only encountered a number of issues, many of which occurred on its own.
It was PG & E that postponed the maintenance of its infrastructure for years, falling short of its goals of clearing trees and other potential fire fuels from near power lines.
Given these shortcomings and the threat posed by the weather, utilities and fire science experts last week, power cuts were justified. A better question is whether so many people would have to lose electricity.
"Under these circumstances, a kind of shutdown was necessary," said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University at Woods Institute for the Environment. "It is not clear if the shutdown initiated by PG & E was necessary."
PG & E was not the only power company that shut off power during the week to reduce the risk of forest fires, but power outages were by far the most far-reaching. More than 700,000 PG & E customers in the Bay Area and Northern California have lost power at some point.
As the wind spread south of the state, Southern California shut down Edison's electricity supply to some 21,000 customers and provided 223,000 more clues that they could be affected from that point on Friday. San Diego Gas and Electric have cut power to about 200 customers, while 30,000 have been notified that they may be losing power.
Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, said the utility companies in Southern California had "invested more in the shutdown of much more strategic, smaller sections of their grid" than PG & E. They've also done more to increase their transmission lines buried to replace wooden pylons with more durable concrete pylons and to improve weather monitoring to track dangerous winds.
After the wires of the deadly witch fire started in 2007, San Diego Gas and Electric essentially rewired their power lines. The power grid should be operated only in the most hazardous areas to minimize the impact on other areas.
The capabilities of PG & E are much less mature: the power grid was shut down proactively last year. The power grid is older and covers a larger and more diverse grid area, where many communities are connected to a single main power line.
Failure of the line in one area can also affect many customers in lower risk areas.
"PG & E is expanding its capabilities, but they are not where they need to be to isolate certain circuits," said Elizaveta Malashenko, deputy executive director of security policy for the California Public Utilities Commission. "They do not always have the ability to surgically intervene in what they turn off and end up closing larger portions of their leads."
And as a company owned by investors, critics say, PG & E also weighs the impact According to Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, this is part of the problem.
"Shareholders, not interest payers or taxpayers, must be responsible for paying the cost of these closures," Toney said. Otherwise, they will always function as a "free exit card" if they have a problem they should have avoided.
The troubled past of a state
The tolerance for the shutdowns might have been higher if they had not been carried out
The failures called to mind many people's memories of blackouts in the early 2000s, when the The state attempted to deliver electricity and gas over a vast and diverse landscape, deregulating their electricity markets in a botched bid to promote cleaner and cheaper electricity. These efforts became a billion dollar fiasco, leading to the first bankruptcy of PG & E.
Next came the aftermath of the fatal explosion in San Bruno in 2010, which, according to investigators, pointed to the fatal combination of erroneous records and poor PG maintenance & E were due. The utility was convicted of crimes and is currently under federal probation.
In the meantime, PG & E's appliances have continued to spark fires, notably several flames that seared the North Bay Wine Country and nearby areas in 2017, as well as Camp Fire, which killed 86 people and nearly killed the city of Paradise burned down.
A federal judge has issued orders to force PG & E to improve the safety of its gas and electricity systems, and the state government has passed a law obliging PG & E to take action to prevent forest fires.
Loretta Lynch, a former president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said the regulator had stamped PG & E's plans. Lynch said she believes the commission, the Californian government responsible for overseeing PG & E, must share the blame for the blackouts.
"Instead of being a guard dog, the PUC behaves like PG & E's pet dog," Lynch said.
Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, said the Commission was underfunded and "has virtually no basic safety operation close to what is needed for direct regulation."
Essentially, I trust that utilities will do what is right in terms of security, and in some cases, this has clearly not worked. "
But forces beyond the control of PG & E or its regulators are at work and will bring greater challenges in the future.
California's dry season is longer and a crippled drought left tens of millions of dead trees in the forests of the state. The far-reaching development has also led to more people and power lines in areas at risk of fire.
"Transmission and utility lines have been causing fires for 100 years," said Borenstein. "But they're starting bigger fires now."
Newsom Speaks Hard
It may not be far from Newsom's view that the last California governor to record massive blackouts in the state was recalled by voters in the middle of his life for a second term.
While Davis has been hampered by other issues, such as a budget crisis, his experience shows how disrupting such a basic service as electricity can be politically deadly.
The crisis Davis faced and the blackouts this week are drastically different. The blackouts in the early 2000s were at least partly due to speculation by energy companies like Enron in the background, not the threat of forest fires.
However, Davis acknowledges that power outages can devastate the popularity of a elected leader.
"No question, they did not help," said the former governor in an interview. "People do not like power outages, even if it's for the sake of precaution, and they have a right to be upset."
Like lawmakers and local officials across the state, Newsom has strongly criticized PG & E. In a news conference on Thursday evening, Newsom said it "will do everything it can to ensure that PG & E complies fully with all of its obligations, which they make privately, and all the commitments they make publicly, to turn the light on possible. "
Newsom has the power to redesign the Public Services Commission by appointing two of its five members, including new President Marybel Batjer.
These commissioners could push PG & E more aggressively for improvement and start investigating how the company handled last week's failures.
The governor could also issue an executive order instructing the PUC to take new regulatory action. Newsom's first state budget is $ 75 million, which can be distributed to local governments to reduce the cost of power outages.
Davis tried to show that he had the problem under control, but it was not enough – his approval ratings fell and fell. He was finally recalled in October 2003. It remains to be seen how Newsom will be judged when the shutdowns continue.
"Visually, he has to show that he is at the top and shouts PG & E not just like everyone else. Said Steven Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento and former press spokesman for Davis.
Expect More Barriers
The list of possible solutions to the problems that PG & E – and California – are facing is long and varied.
The most ambitious plans envisage a resolution According to experts, PG & E must focus in the short term on hardening its existing infrastructure by catching up on tree removal and maintenance and catching up with Southern California utilities have made extensive use of it "Subdivision" of their network to more accurately determine the power outages.
In the Bay Area, efforts by former PUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval aimed in particular to focus on areas where the region's topography produces malignant wind tunnels, such as along the ridges of Mount Saint Helena in the Napa and Sonoma counties and between Mount Diablo and Sunol Ridge.
"We can not have massive failures year after year, w hile PG & E is moving at a slow pace," said Sandoval. "We need to find a happy medium in which we have both reliability and security."
In a region where customers are already paying some of the highest electricity bills in the country, none of these solutions will be cheap. And it will take at least several years for them to all become reality. During this time, the hot, dry wind blows over northern California at the end of the dry season. The conditions that led to blackouts last week will not change that fast.
"This will be a regular part of the fall," Wara said. Sure enough, as PG & E did it Late last week, National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson restored the early warning signals of another round of windy, dry weather in the Bay Area.
"It's this time of year," Peterson said.