PG&E Is Cutting Off Power In California So They Don’t Get Sued Over Another Wildfire

There have been a series of blackouts in northern California recently, but these don’t have anything to do with storms or equipment failure. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has been intentionally, proactively shutting off the juice in areas where red flag warnings for potential wildfires have been posted. This has led to numerous complaints (mostly justified or at least understandable) from people losing service, particularly those who rely on electricity for home medical equipment. But the actions by PG&E are equally understandable. (ABC News)

Pacific Gas & Electric cut power Saturday to about 1,600 customers in Northern California to reduce risk of wildfires amid windy, dry and warming weather conditions that raised the year’s first red flag warnings.

The utility said it began cutting power at 6 a.m. to portions of Napa, Solano and Yolo counties, an area northeast of the San Francisco Bay region. The company also announced in advance that it may have to cut power to 30,000 customers in Butte, Yuba, Nevada, El Dorado and Placer counties.

Conditions ripe for fire — winds, low humidity, dry vegetation and heat — were expected to last into Sunday. The National Weather Service said a station north of Sonoma reported gusts to 50 mph (80 kph) Saturday.

The public statement from PG&E focuses entirely on safety and making sure there aren’t any more massive fires being triggered by sparks from electrical equipment. That’s a smart move since it makes them look like they’re taking every reasonable step possible to help prevent such tragedies.

At the same time, I’m fairly sure we all know the real reason for this decision. The utility was fined more than $1.6 billion for their alleged role in starting some of last year’s massive fires. That led to their recently filing for bankruptcy protection, facing as much as $30B more in liabilities. If they’re blamed for another fire, the subsequent lawsuits would probably put them out of business entirely.

I still have to wonder how much of the culpability for these fires can fairly be hung around the neck of PG&E. They’ve been delivering utility services since 1905 under that name and were supplying natural gas under an earlier incarnation since the 1800s. California has also traditionally experienced wildfires during the dry seasons. Have the power lines always been at fault or is this a more recent phenomenon?

I’ll admit that the New York Times made a rather persuasive argumentearlier this year that PG&E has been increasingly negligent in taking down trees near their powerlines and maintaining or replacing very old towers. If the utility truly has been increasingly negligent in terms of maintenance, part of the blame (and financial responsibility) can probably be put at their feet. But at the same time, it’s been made clear that California (along with other western states) has greatly reduced the number of controlled burns they do each year and those areas have turned into tinderboxes. If so, isn’t the state also partly to blame for failing to do a different sort of maintenance?

For the time being, PG&E needs to cover their butts financially. People will no doubt be unhappy at having their power cut, but they may need to invest in generators if they live in the red flag areas. And while I don’t want to play the doomsayer here, the fires will continue anyway. They are caused by many things beyond sparks from powerlines.

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