Don’t be surprised if the Home Depot distribution center in Lathrop and the Lowe’s Home Improvement distribution center in Manteca operated by Penske Logistics start stocking up on power generations by the trainload.
That’s because PG&E is expanding the size of its service area that it will turn electricity off intentionally during periods of high winds to avoid its archaic and unreliable equipment from sparking wildfires such as the one in November that wiped most of Paradise off the face of the earth, killed 85 people and destroyed more than 19,000 homes and other structures.
That means upwards of 5.4 million customers — or roughly a third of the people who have no choice but to rely on PG&E for electricity — are at risk for going without electricity for as long as five days. It goes without saying that all 5.4 million would never go black at the same time, but the fact PG&E is expanding its blackout policy is an admission that they have managed the quasi-public monopoly they’ve been granted by the people of the State of California so ineptly that they should no longer be entrusted to provide electricity to 16 million Californians.
In October — a month before the deadly Paradise blaze — PG&E cut power to some 60,000 residents as winds approached 50 miles per hour in some areas of Northern California. In places like Calistoga power was out for three days. Residents, grocery stores, and homeowners lost food to spoilage. Most businesses were unable to operate. Street lights and traffic lights went dark. Municipal water wells stopped pumping water as did private wells. Surgeries were delayed and schools closed. Those that rely on electricity to power medical equipment were put in precarious, life-threatening situations. The losses were staggering. PG&E under state laws that holds it not responsible in many of the scenarios listed as well as the complex nature of making a claim against a company that has an in-house legal staff that is arguably one of the largest law firms in the state means the odds of getting even a dime for your losses is slim to none.
The announcement recently that PG&E is expanding its high wind blackouts to encompass more than half of its service territory stunned local and county emergency officials in the areas affected.
The prime suspect in the Camp Fire is a century-old PG&E high voltage transmission line that the utility repeatedly year after year delayed doing a safety overhaul that the for-profit utility recognized was essential to perform. PG&E ignoring basic safety that led to the loss of the lives of 85 people is just a cost of doing business for the high-powered executives at 555 Beale St. in San Francisco. After all, to pay golden parachutes to PG&E’s top brass over the years who have led the company into bankruptcy, overseen the leveling of a San Bruno neighborhood while killing eight, and were in charge in 2017 when state fire investigators determined the firm’s equipment played a role in startling 18 wildfires that killed 22 people you have to cut corners somewhere.
Given that PG&E serves roughly two thirds of the state plus similar policies being pursued by Southern Consolidated Edison as well as San Diego Gas & Electric, means half of California — the world’s sixth largest economy if it were a free-standing nation — can go dark whenever winds which a critical speed.
Those clamoring about climate change are unwittingly giving PG&E’s corporate greed cover. Drought — based on carbon dating of tree rings — in California has been the norm for centuries. High winds are nothing new.
PG&E for decades, if not longer, has pursued business decisions that made safety and upgrading the systems they have operated as cash cows to underwrite large returns for Wall Street investment firms a non-priority.
If you don’t think that is the case, have you noticed the PG&E crews working at various locations in Manteca during the last few months? They are working to put cut-off valves in place so if there is an incident of significant consequence impacting the natural gas pipeline system Manteca doesn’t suffer a similar fate as San Bruno. To be clear they are not over pressuring the lines as happened in San Bruno but they are making the system safer. PG&E is doing such work elsewhere.
Obviously they are being forced to do it by the law of averages more than anything else. The older systems age and the less robust you make them from a safety standpoint when you install them sooner or later the rolling of the dice will catch up with you.
After the San Bruno catastrophe PG&E — with state and federal regulators breathing down their necks — inspected and ranked pipelines in urgent need of replacement. One that made the top 20 was a natural gas pipeline transmission line section in the rural area south of Manteca. PG&E eventually did the upgrade but it took the loss of eight lives and 35 homes plus public outrage pushing the government to do something to get PG&E to give the condition of its natural gas transmission lines a serious look. What happened in San Bruno could have happened here.
The bottom line for PG&E — whether it is their gas service or retail electricity operations — is they weren’t doing the right thing long before the climate change mantra came into vogue.
It would be a severe injustice for PG&E that is now flinging about the term “extreme weather” to leave the impression their fate is in the hands of elements they can’t control to be able to use the climate change cover that is being kicked around to possibly get away with murder and what wanton destruction of thousands upon thousands of homes each year.
Increasing the area that they will cut off electricity to in high winds is a devastating position for PG&E to take. It may look like they are just being cautious and protecting themselves against future lawsuits over wildfire damages. But in reality it underscores the fact PG&E has spectacularly failed to make much needed investments for decades to assure the sturdiness and safety of the power grid as evidenced by keeping a 100-year plus old high voltage power line that they knew was a safety issue for years in place.
PG&E is essentially admitting that they can’t be entrusted to always delivery power safely and reliably.
The real question is what are Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature going to do about it?