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June 27, 2019

California Will Endure Prearranged Power Outages

First World problems in the Golden State are thanks to insane leftist policies.

In California’s last two fire seasons, more than 135 people died, and tens of thousands of homes and businesses were obliterated. This ongoing dynamic has been precipitated by two overriding factors: first, the power lines, conductors, and other equipment of the state’s largest power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, as well as those of other state utility companies, are largely antiquated. Second, years of environmental activism have enabled the largely uncontrolled growth of thousands of acres of dense underbrush and vegetation that can be easily ignited during periods of dry weather or severe winds.

California’s approach to fixing the problem? On May 30, the California Public Utilities Commission gave the green light to PG&E and the other utility companies to cut off electricity — to possibly hundreds of thousands of customers — whenever they deem the fire risk is extremely high.

The reasoning behind this decision was detailed last February, when California’s utility companies filed contingency plans with state regulators in advance of the 2019 wildfire season that began this month. Those plans were submitted after PG&E filed for bankruptcy protection, precipitated by ten of billions of dollars in liability claims from those who bore the brunt of the wildfire devastation. PG&E insisted development in remote areas and climate change were major contributors to wildfires’ severity, but critics asserted the company has not done enough to reduce the risk posed by its equipment. And while the utility stated it will spend as much as $2.3 billion this year to mitigate that risk, the company ultimately admitted that “preventing wildfires outright is likely impossible.”

Thus, PG&E has developed a formula that determines when people will be left without power. As PG&E senior public safety specialist David Hodgkiss explains, “elevated (Tier 2) or extreme (Tier 3)” risk triggering a Red Flag warning will be engendered by humidity below 20%, sustained winds over 25 mph, and winds gusts over 40 mph. Those conditions will be verified by 1,300 weather stations the company plans to install across its customer-service area in central and northern California that serves approximately 40% of the state’s population.

Last October, the utility company implemented what amounts to a trial run of this policy in several small communities in the North Bay and Sierra Foothills. Power was deliberately cut off to nearly 60,000 customers for two days.

Yet as Hodgkiss warns, keeping the power off for only 48 hours may be an optimistic prediction going forward. “Each and every foot of line and piece of conductor needs to be inspected” before restoring it to make sure downed trees or other hazards aren’t impacting power lines, and that some of those inspections take time “especially in a mountainous area,” he explains. “The inspect and patrol is a huge undertaking, but they’ve gotten a lot better at it than last fall. The goal is to complete it within 48 hours and have everything up and running, but that will depend on the event.”

PG&E spokeswoman Alison Talbott was somewhat tone deaf in explaining the company’s position. “Go ahead and be mad at PG&E,” she stated, “but use this as an opportunity to prepare yourself; because an emergency can happen at any time that isn’t fire-related.”

Mad? Fifty-six year old Kallithea Miller isn’t mad. “I could die in my sleep,” said a woman who relies on her refrigerator to keep her insulin cool, as well as a CPAP machine to maintain her breathing during the night. “It’s scaring the hell out of me.”

It should. As Hodgkiss noted, PG&E will “ideally” begin alerting public-safety agencies 48 hours in advance of a blackout, and then begin getting warnings out to the public via social media and news outlets 24 hours prior to an outage.

Ideally? California’s track record of “ideal” (read: wholly inadequate) solutions for real-world problems is the stuff of legend.

Nonetheless, the epicenter of progressive ideology and radical environmentalism must get its act together. After years of neglect, the U.S. Forest Service and the state’s Cal Fire agency are thinning forests, clearing brush, and setting controlled burns on more acres than they have in quite some time. Unsurprisingly, the effort required Gov. Gavin Newsom to exempt such projects from environmental review. The U.S. Forest Service has also announced a plan to “streamline” federal regulations.

Unfortunately, the current effort only marginally addresses the problem. State officials estimate approximately 15 million acres of wilderness need to be overhauled, yet the U.S. Forest Service plans to treat only 220,000 acres, and Cal Fire can only handle 45,000 acres. “We’re not going to solve the problem (right away),” said Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. “But there’s hope of making a difference in the next two decades.”

Two decades? “Power outrages are characteristic of Third World countries,” Victor Davis Hanson writes. “Here in California we are advised to brace for lots of them, given that our antiquated grid apparently contributes to brush fires on hot days. As a native, I do not remember a single instance of our 20th-century state utilities shutting down service in the manner that they now routinely promise.”

Those promises come with a steep price attached. Calistoga is one of the towns that went dark last October. When it did, city officials claim communications with PG&E broke down, leaving them hard-pressed to get vulnerable residents in three mobile-home parks medical attention. In addition, schools closed and hospitals postponed surgeries. At the 18-room Calistoga Inn, power went out in the middle of the dinner rush, and owner Michael Dunsford estimated the lost revenue, combined with cleaning out his refrigerators and issuing refunds to hotel customers, cost him about $15,000.

Yet as columnists Russell Gold and Katherine Blunt reveal, it gets worse. “PG&E said it generally wouldn’t cover losses due to intentional blackouts — regulations don’t require it to — though it would consider claims case-by-case,” they explain. “It declined to say whether it has ever compensated anyone for such claims.”

In short, Californians are on their own. Even the San Francisco Chronicle acknowledges as much. They advise Californians to buy portable generators, solar roof-top panels, or a $6,700 Tesla Powerwall battery — as if ordinary people in the state with the highest income-tax rates in the nation have such disposable income — after they’re finished paying the sixth highest electric bills. State Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) has also proposed a bill to fix the problem on the wrong of the equation, with a plan to secure backup systems for those who need power for medical reasons. “The last thing we want to do is have a situation like that hurting people,” Dodd said. “This is all new to everybody.”

This is not new. California has had rolling blackouts for more than two decades. What is new? “No U.S. utility has ever blacked out so many people on purpose,” Gold and Blunt state.

Until now — and for the foreseeable future.

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