OPINION: PG&E power shut-offs are an inadequate solution to California’s fire problems

three silhouettes of power lines in front of a fiery yellow and orange sky
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

On Oct. 9, the lights went out for more than two million people in 800,000 households across 34 California counties, according to the Los Angeles Times. Traffic came to a stop. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Medical equipment stopped working.

This wasn’t a scene from some alternate post-apocalyptic world. Instead, it was a stark reality for many Pacific Gas & Electric customers across the state.

Due to dry and windy weather that led the Storm Prediction Center to declare portions of California as “critical” and “extreme” in fire weather outlook, PG&E decided to cut power for customers in parts of Northern California, including the Bay Area, as well as coastal and central California, according to The Washington Post

With many parts of California becoming high-risk spots for wildfires in the past few years, utility companies have been taking on a more cautious stance, since they are liable for wildfire damage caused by their equipment, according to The Wall Street Journal

Power shut-offs are definitely a technique for managing wildfire risk, since power lines and other electrical equipment can be hazardous in the event of a fire.

However, this doesn’t mean that cutting the power is a perfect solution to California’s wildfire problem. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Power outages bring a whole new set of problems to the table.

For instance, people with disabilities or medical conditions who rely on electricity for their equipment may be placed in potentially life-threatening situations if they do not have access to power.

The San Francisco Chronicle also reported traffic and car accidents in Northern California due to non-functioning traffic lights. UC Berkeley and other schools in the area canceled classes. Important research and projects being conducted by UC Berkeley researchers, as well as for NASA, were threatened by the power outages.

The lack of power also relegated many businesses to being temporarily cash-only, as credit card systems failed to work. It’s estimated that the power outage had an economic impact of $65 million to $2.5 billion.

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Such inconveniences were only exacerbated by poor communication from PG&E. Customers say they received very little advance notice about the power shut-offs, according to The Washington Post. It didn’t help that PG&E’s website could not handle the amount of traffic it was receiving in light of its announcement about the power outages; for a while, customers were unable to access the site to gain needed information.

And even after the risk of fire goes down, it still takes a few days for PG&E to check the power grid and ensure that everything is working smoothly before customers can have access to power again. This time, PG&E finished restoring power to 99 percent of customers by 9:02 p.m on Oct. 11.

After this week’s power shut-off, PG&E reported 50 confirmed cases of damaged equipment and 100 more cases involving possible wind-related damage, according to The Sacramento Bee. Though the company claims its power shut-off prevented these incidents from causing potential wildfires, it’s important to remember that many wildfires are not caused by utility equipment failure in the first place.

For instance, on Oct. 10, the Sandalwood Fire began in Southern California when a truck driver dumped some burning garbage on the side of the road, spreading flames to grass nearby, the Los Angeles Times reported. A power shut-off couldn’t have prevented such a fire.

Additionally, in the case of an actual fire, a power outage could significantly hinder the transfer of information about safety warnings or evacuations, as well as communication with friends and family, since customers aren’t able to charge their phones or receive cellular service.

In any case, utility companies can do better. There should be no need for companies like PG&E to turn off the power every time there’s an increased risk of fire. As of Sept. 21, PG&E had only finished 31 percent of the tree-trimming it had planned for the year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle

Utility companies must put more effort into the maintenance of power lines by making sure to replace aged lines that should no longer be used, as well as ensuring that vegetation, which can catch on fire, does not grow around power lines.

PG&E claimed on its website that it was carrying out these power shut-offs in the interest of its customers and their safety. But PG&E was also found liable for the Camp Fire in Paradise last year, as reported by The New York Times, which led to the company losing two-thirds of its market value between mid-October 2018 and January 2019. 

Though power shut-offs can certainly help to prevent the spread of wildfires, the company’s main motivation to have the power outages was clearly to cover itself in the case of another wildfire.

Power outages are not necessarily less harmful than wildfires. Utility companies like PG&E must reconsider their values and work on developing concrete solutions that get to the root of California’s wildfire problem without the negative consequences that come with power outages.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 is from San Jose, California, where parts of the area were affected by the Pacific Gas & Electric power shut-offs. She feels strongly about the wildfires that have been devastating her state, and hopes that they will begin to occur less frequently.

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