Sunday Commentary: Power Outages the New Normal?


California Wildfires

There we were on Friday evening and suddenly the news is reporting that areas of Yolo County – specifically Winters and Davis – could have the power turned off on Saturday morning at 6 am.

As it turned out it was rural areas of Yolo County – around 1600 customers.  But PG&E warned that the power outage would be for a considerable length of time, “expected  to continue from  early Saturday morning through at least Saturday afternoon, and possibly into Sunday.”

As it turns out this will not impact the city of Davis – at least this time – but could that change in the future?  No one seems to know.

The scary thing is this is the first time this year we have faced high winds and high heat and it just rained – just last week.  The ground is still wet in some places.  Already we are seeing fires.

“The safety of our customers and the communities we serve is our most important responsibility,” said Michael Lewis, senior vice president of Electric Operations, PG&E, in a statement.  “We know how much our customers rely on electric service, and our decision tonight to turn off power is to protect our communities experiencing extreme fire danger.”

The Bee reports that the shutoffs came “a day after PG&E’s board of directors and chief executive officer, Bill Johnson, visited Paradise for a court-ordered, first-hand look at the devastation of last November’s Camp Fire.”

The company has apparently said it would use blackouts only as a “last resort,” however, as the Bee reports, “it’s under enormous pressure to prevent any more wildfires, and the planned blackouts are part of a state-approved ‘wildfire prevention’ program that all major utilities had to prepare this year. PG&E ran a deliberate blackout across parts of Northern California last fall, but its plan for this year is much more aggressive.”

Last resort?  It took this as preemptive action before anything happened.

Let us be clear on a few points here.  Given the loss of life and property destruction the last few years, if turning off the power can prevent that, then fine, do what you have to do.  As we noted last summer and fall, the health impacts of these fires extend well beyond just the immediate tragedy.

Last fall we had smoke days, had the cancellation of schools and UC Davis, and thus the impact was tremendous.

But power outages every time we get a north wind and a heat wave cannot become the new normal in the age of global warming.  There has to be a bigger plan.  The state needs to mandate that PG&E fix its transmission lines and take actions to make electrical transmission safe, so that we don’t have to have the power go out for potentially days at a time every time we get a high pressure system during the summer months.

The problem is that even with these precautions, fires are a risk.  For instance, yesterday just north of Rumsey in Yolo County a fire was report in the afternoon, quickly growing from 125 acres to 600 acres and by 9 pm, 1700 with no containment.

The cause of the fire is not known.  But with or without the power outages, this is our reality.

In the meantime, it is business as usually in Washington.  The NY Times reported yesterday, “The White House tried to stop a State Department senior intelligence analyst from discussing climate science in congressional testimony this week, internal emails and documents show.”

Analyst Rod Schoonover, “an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, was ultimately allowed to speak before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday.  But in a highly unusual move, the White House refused to approve Dr. Schoonover’s written testimony for entry into the permanent Congressional Record.”

The Times reported on an email that said “the science did not match the Trump administration’s views.”

As they waffle, a new report from Australia, the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, finds that human civilization is at risk of collapse by 2050 due to the effects of climate change.

The Inquiry found that climate change is “a current and existential national security risk,” one that “threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development.”

At the same time, Professor Will Steffen said that the climate challenge is “not a technological or scientific problem.  It’s a question of humanity’s socio-political values.  We need a social tipping point that flips our thinking before we reach a tipping point in the climate system.”

In short, as Admiral Chris Barrie, a AC RAN retired professor put, “A doomsday future is not inevitable.  But without immediate action our prospects are poor.”

However, the findings are bleak: climate change is “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization” and “could possibly end the world as we know it in the coming decades.”

The report also cautions that “planetary and human systems [are] reaching a ‘point of no return’ by mid-century, in which the prospect of a largely uninhabitable Earth leads to the breakdown of nations and the international order.”

In the meantime, we can be thankful that this time we avoided a prolonged power outrage – will we be as fortunate next time?  After all, summer has not even officially begun.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Power Outages the New Normal?”

    1. Craig Ross

      First of all, a power outage isn’t merely inconvenient.  It means lost work, it’s a health threat, it’s a financial threat.  Depending on how long it goes.

      Second of all, the cause of the power outage is also not mere inconvenience, it’s a sign that things have gone terribly wrong and a very drastic cure.

      Third, this is really the start of the impacts of global warming that are coming home to roost.

      Your comment seems ill-informed.

  1. Jim Hoch

    Central distribution of power is a recent phenomena and may have run it’s course for much of California. Local generation and living within your generation footprint is the new normal.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Yeah.  Recently in the evolutionary sense… but the TVA (central distribution of power over a large area) existed 21 years before I was born… 85 years ago (21+64).

      Using electricity for anything is ‘recent’ in that sense… might go back another 40-50 years before that, max.

       Local generation and living within your generation footprint is the new normal.

      And good luck affording both of those happening in rural areas… without massive subsidies from urban areas… guess we should make Susanville, Fort Bragg, Esparto, Williams, San Francisco, LA, cut themselves off the grid…

      Same applies to water supplies, perhaps… perhaps the central distribution of water (local generation of water and having folk live within their generation footprint should be their “new normal” too?

      Same may apply to education… local generation of funds and living within it… interesting concept…

      And government services in general… if you can’t supply/generate it locally, why should the ‘generation of funds to do so be other than locally?

      Worthy of consideration… may be a great idea, and solve many problems… might be some ‘collatoral damages’ though, surely in short term…

      1. Jim Hoch

        If you go into the rural areas you find that different utilities have vastly different foot prints. Sewer lines disappear first, gas lines next, then water, and finally electricity.

        Why do you suppose many rural houses have electricity but no water, gas, or sewer?

  2. John Hobbs

    I weep every time I see Rancho Seco just wasting away. The short-sighted sissies that ran from real progress should be force fed coal dust.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Philosophically, John H, couldn’t RS be our ‘Stonehedge’? Or our “twin towers”? [tongue fully in the cheek found above the shoulders]

      Agree with your gist, though…

    2. Richard McCann

      I was part of the team that analyzed whether to continue to run the Ranch. It was boondoggle that could not be saved for reasons of poor incentives and mismanagement. SMUD would not have survived continued operation, and instead SMUD has become the epitome of a well run mid sized progressive utility. SMUD saved $250M (and would have saved $500M if they had listened to us the first time around.)

      Closing Diablo Canyon similarly will help us avoid an financial mess. Relicensing Diablo would have cost 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (PG&E’s estimate), whereas we can get solar and wind for under 5 cents.

  3. Richard McCann

    “The state needs to mandate that PG&E fix its transmission lines and take actions to make electrical transmission safe, so that we don’t have to have the power go out for potentially days at a time every time we get a high pressure system during the summer months.”

    Simply “fixing” this with actions like undergrounding will increase rates 60 to 80% and largely benefit rural customers who are already subsidized in the foothills. More forward looking solutions will require installing microgrids and distributed energy resources, and thinking about whether its appropriate to allow certain classes of at risk individuals in those areas.

    SDG&E and SCE have managed its fire risk successfully since 2008 with technology that limits spark risk, but PG&E has refused to install that technology to date, so it’s stuck with the “hammer” of turning off power on entire circuits. I can go through a long litany of how PG&E has mismanaged its system over the last 4 decades…

    1. Bill Marshall

      Your first paragraph, re:  huge costs of undergrounding,

      Even when technically feasible (not applicable to the major transmission lines), would be very expensive where you have to run it thru granite or serpentine rock… where it is feasible, technically, they would have to be at least 24 inches below grade… many rural areas have less than 24 inches below grade before you get into rock…

      Another problem with UG facilities… if there is a “break in the line”, harder to isolate and fix the problem than with OH…

      So, Richard, am affirming your knowledge/facts but do not ‘confirm or deny’ the specific rate increase parameters… but I suspect you underestimated, and yes, it would have to be heavily subsidized by the non-rural customers…

      Unless, of course, “the folk out in the sticks” as it were, went “pioneer” … if they choose to do so, fine…

    2. Alan Miller

      thinking about whether its appropriate to allow certain classes of at risk individuals in those areas.

      I do not understand what you mean by “certain classes of at risk individuals”.   Could you clarify?

      1. Bill Marshall

        I’ll jump in on that… dealing with it from a water supply issue… think it is analogous…

        There are those in care facilities, and those who have home dialysis, who would be at risk with a power shut-off… they are already at risk, to be sure, from more localized outages… this increases the risk, for some… care facilities should have back-up generators… homes do not, generally…

        Ran into this many years ago, when we had to shut off all water to Rancho Yolo, to deal with an issue… we found work-arounds, but not easy… it was a home dialysis issue… the person was at real risk…

    3. Bill Marshall

      Your second paragraph, re: SD & SC… intriguing about technology re:  spark risk… links?  If it is at the tip of your fingers, as it were… unlike some, I don’t expect folk to do research for me, but if it is simple…

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