Forced power outages across the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond this week have recast a harsh light on the utility company whose aging infrastructure has been responsible for the region’s worst fires in recent years.
By Wednesday, around 800,000 Pacific Gas & Electric customers across California will have lost power as part of a company precaution during an approaching windstorm with low humidity ― two high wildfire risk factors. The outage could last for up to five days.
“This is a last resort,” Sumeet Singh, head of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, said at a Tuesday night press conference.
But even to state leaders, the drastic solution is a response to a problem of PG&E’s own making.
A widespread power shutoff like this “is not how things should work in the industry,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told reporters Tuesday.
“None of us are happy about this,” he said, adding, “We have an antiquated system at PG&E that needs to be upgraded.”
Millions of California residents are being affected this week as other utility companies follow suit, but none have come under quite the same scrutiny as PG&E.
Some of the state’s worst wildfires in recent years were sparked by PG&E’s power lines, often when they come into contact with nearby tree branches. Last year’s deadly Camp fire, the worst in California’s modern history, is among those instances.
It’s not the first time Newsom, who assumed office this year, has gone off on PG&E.
None of us are happy about this. Gov. Gavin Newsom
“They have simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public,” he told The New York Times in March. “They cannot be trusted.”
PG&E has been under nearly nonstop investigation for the past decade for wildfires linked to the company violating safety rules, such as poor record-keeping on malfunctioning equipment. Time and again, state regulators have found that PG&E violated state laws when it comes to keeping its equipment safe, especially given the tinder dry conditions California has endured in recent years.
Just last week, the company agreed to pay a $5 million penalty to the state and spend $60 million on improving its “locate and mark” safety program intended to prevent explosions when digging near underground utility facilities.
And last month, PG&E agreed to pay out $11 billion to a group of insurance companies representing people affected by the swarm of deadly fires in 2017 and 2018.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, say the forced power outage is a grim reminder that California, a state suffering from so many climate-change-related disasters, needs to invest in cleaner, safer energy infrastructure.
“Turning out the lights for weeks at a time will become the new normal for California residents unless the state takes action to build a more sustainable energy system,” Alexandra Nagy, the California director of Food & Water Action, said.
“Distributed generation from clean, renewable energy and storage can help reduce reliance on large scale distribution lines and increase reliability,” she added, “not to mention the added benefits of cleaner air, a more stable climate, and lower energy costs associated with clean, renewable energy.”