Commentary: Wind, Fire, Power Outrages – Post Climate Change California’s Normal?

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Kincade Fire burns near Geyserville, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 – (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

It is easy to point your finger at PG&E, at their failure to plan and maintain their electrical lines, their untenable solution of turning off power for long periods of time – this is a disaster.  Maybe it is the first real disaster of climate change.

This is the third year in a row that we have experienced horrific fire conditions in the early fall as the weather starts to change, the conditions are as dry as they ever will be, and winds are whipping like never before.

As the Washington Post reported on Monday, “Evidence continues to mount that climate change is worsening their effects.”

They note that “this year’s windstorms have shocked forecasters because they have been so closely packed together. After being bombarded by a windstorm last Wednesday and Thursday, and a stronger ‘historic’ blast over the weekend, the area is bracing for a third surge Tuesday and Wednesday.”

“I’ve been in this business for 28 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Steve Anderson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s forecast office serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Later the Post notes: “Although there are multiple causes, the flare-up in fire activity over the past decade or so has coincided with an observed trend toward hotter, drier and longer-lasting fire seasons.”

According to Cal Fire, “[C]limate change is considered a key driver of this trend.”

We have had decades of warning that climate change was coming – but let’s blame this all on PG&E, oh, and my favorite, laws attempting to mitigate climate change.

What the State Republicans are now proposing as a solution is to halt a state law that would require California to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2045.

Because that makes sense – let’s stall legislation that is the longer-term fix in order to solve a short-term problem.

But that’s what Senator Jim Nielsen and Assemblymember James Gallagher are arguing.  They say that PG&E is spending a huge amount of money, approximately $2.4 billion, to comply with SB 100, and they could use that money to prevent future wildfires and power shutoffs over the next ten years.

They also argue that PG&E is already on track to meet its obligations – arguing that right now 85 percent of its electricity comes from renewable and greenhouse gas-free sources.

“Why are we continuing to force them to pay billions of dollars of ratepayer funds buying more renewables when we could take those dollars to make their infrastructure safer for all of us who are experiencing this?” Assemblymember Gallagher asked. “This is smarter climate policy.”

But is that a climate policy?  Conservatives are making the argument that the state is pushing PG&E into using more sustainable energy rather than ensuring its power grid is in good shape.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized last week that “California’s return to the dark ages is a direct result of the Democratic political monopoly in Sacramento.”

Clearly the Democrats have to be careful here.  A key impetus for Gray Davis being removed from office 15 years ago by the voters was mishandling power issues.  On the other hand, it appears right now that PG&E, rather than the state lawmakers, are bearing most of the blame here.

Democrats are countering that PG&E is prioritizing making money for its investors rather than prioritizing safety.

There is also the rather important argument to shift our electrical use in order to reduce our carbon footprint, hoping to hold off climate change.

Unlike what was the case in 2003, Democrats have a ready-made scapegoat for the power problems – PG&E, a company no one likes at this point.

“As it relates to PG&E, it’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. “It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.”

For their part, PG&E is focused on attempting to fix the current problems with shutoffs.

They said in a statement, “There will be a time and place to discuss policy proposals, but right now our full attention is on safety.”

Meanwhile, Kevin de León, the state senator who authored SB 100, said he worries that the Republican proposal “would increase PG&E’s operating costs and give the utility even less money to spend on improving its infrastructure.”

Moreover, he worries that undoing SB 100 would make it harder for California to meet climate change goals.

“Changing or repealing California’s landmark 100 percent clean energy law is like giving snake oil to a sick patient in a hospital,” Senator de León said. “It does nothing to help cure the problem and would set us back decades in our efforts to reduce the devastating impacts of extreme weather patterns like the ones we are facing right now.”

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning.  We have seen three years of this weather pattern – normal dry and hot summer weather seems to be extending later and later.  A couple of years ago it was in the 80s leading right up to Thanksgiving.  Last year, fires forced the cancellation of school prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.  We appear headed that way again, with no rain in sight.

PG&E and the state lawmakers are just reacting right now – but once the season changes, someone has to come up with a longer-range solution.

—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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6 thoughts on “Commentary: Wind, Fire, Power Outrages – Post Climate Change California’s Normal?”

  1. Darell Dickey

    Does anybody know when we universally began referring to energy (or at least electricity) as “power?” And *why* this was done? Do people not know what energy and power are? There’s one utility (can’t recall which one) that uses the tagline “we delivery energy.” Yay! But so rarely is that stated correctly. Instead we hear utilities referred to as “power companies” and the utilities are reportedly cutting off “power” for safety. They call it a PSPS when it is a PSES.

    Oddly enough, we are comfortable with the concept of “renewable energy.” But once that energy is sent to our homes by the utility, everybody seems to start calling it power. We don’t make “renewable power.” Yet.

    I’m sure that this seems pedantic to some. But consider that using the word power as a synonym for energy is not much different than claiming that your gasoline tank holds 38 MPG. Or that your truck can tow 6,000 pounds because it holds 38 gallons of gas. Energy can be stored. Power is created by using that energy to do something. The units of energy and power are quite different.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Darell… agree… just like we agree on the difference between crashes/collisions and ‘accidents’… not same at all… just like energy is not = power…

    2. Richard McCann

      Since electric energy is difficult and costly to store, power and energy are nearly synonymous. And the terms have been used somewhat interchangeably for the decades that I’ve been working on electricity issues.

      1. Darell Dickey

        Hi Richard. Thanks for taking a shot at the answer. I *do* appreciate it, and I apologize for the fact that the rest of this post will sound critical of your comment. I also apologize for using this one Vanguard article to point out that understanding the difference between power and energy is important. And of course that science, math and words all matter.

        First the concept of electrical energy being difficult and costly to store. This seems to imply that we therefor don’t store much of it. But of course we DO store it all day every day. It is stored in the 3.5 Billion mobile phones that are running around the planet. It is stored in our hundreds of millions of laptops. It is stored in our EVs and electric scooters and electric toothbrushes. It is stored in all those AA batteries that power our flashlights and clocks and… so many devices. And we store other energy types everywhere: In our plants (current wildfires are producing a lot of destructive power from the energy stored in the plant matter), in our gasoline tanks, in our natural gas, in our coal, in our oceans, in our air, in our food.  Energy storage is all around us, and we can’t escape it, nor can we live without it. This is all energy until someone or something, or some event turns it into power. PG&E sends energy through its mis-named “power lines” to our homes. It is not power.

        Next is the concept that it is reasonable to equate energy and power. I don’t see how it makes sense that a Watt is equivalent to a Watt-hour, no matter how difficult energy might be to store. As I alluded to earlier, this would imply that the question “What is the rated horsepower of your car?” could reasonably be answered with “35 gallons.” Or if somebody would like to know how big is your gasoline tank, you could answer “0-60 in four seconds, that’s how big!”

        Three examples to show why Watts are not equivalent to Watt-hours:

        1. The battery in my EV holds 75 kW-hours (energy). That’s my fuel tank, and it does not determine how powerful my car is. When I accelerate like crazy, my motors can use that stored energy to make about 270 kW (power). If somebody asks how powerful my car is, and I answer 75 kW instead of the accurate 270 kW, you can easily see how power and energy cannot be equivalent. 

        2. If you turn on a 100 Watt (power) light bulb, does that mean that it uses 100 Watt-hours (energy)? Well it *could* if you only ever use it for exactly one hour. But if you leave that light on all day, it will use 2,400 Watt hours. Leave it on for a year and it will use 876,000 Watt-hours. I contend that a 100 Watt bulb should not be considered capable of producing 876,000 Watts just because some folks suggest that energy and power are equivalent.

        3. If a Watt were equivalent to a Watt-hour, then the number of cars that can enter a parking garage in an hour (or ANY random amount of time) would be equivalent to the total number of parking stalls that exist in the garage. The rate of cars entering is similar to power. The number of parking stalls is similar to energy storage. Parking garages are designed for the amount of storage as well as the rate that cars that can enter and exit in a period of time. These numbers will be related, but not equivalent. (credit for this example goes to a good friend).

        This isn’t just a pedantic issue (I see you rolling your eyes!), there are important consequences to this false equivalency. Conflating the two units has caused endless and often dangerous confusion. If you are building an energy storage facility that needs to supply 1000 Watts, but is instead built to merely hold 1000 Watt-hours while only able to supply 50 Watts… there could be and have been enormous safety and financial consequences.

        Energy is related to power of course. But the two units are not and cannot be equivalent. PG&E generates, sells and distributes electrical energy (as well as energy stored in natural gas). The end-user alone determines when to make power, and how much power to make with that energy.

  2. Janet Krovoza16

    Thank you, David, for this cogent and clear assessment.  We need to address this situation on so many fronts, and with urgency. Heart-rending to see our beautiful state destroyed.

  3. Alan Miller

    There is not unlimited money.  Most especially for infrastructure.  Most especially when tens-of-billions are involved.

    Clearly, PG&E’s infrastructure is not up to par.  For 1970.

    So-called green-energy mandates take billions.  (Do the math.)   And are often giveaways to connected firms.

    Don’t let idealism create a mind so open thy brain falls out.

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