Your Questions Answered About California’s Power Shut-Offs

4:37 minutes

a long row of power lines
High-voltage power lines cross the ponds and marshes of San Francisco Bay area, California. Credit: Shutterstock

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by KQED Science and News Reporters, originally appeared on KQED in San Francisco.

Pacific Gas & Electric has generated confusion—not to mention outrage—with its power grid shutdowns. The situation continues for a second day in 34 California counties. On social media and phone calls to KQED’s Forum radio program, people throughout PG&E’s service area have asked how and why the investor-owned utility took this step. KQED reporters have some answers to some of the questions that have come in …

Why Is PG&E Turning the Power Off? Is This PG&E’s Fault?

Bottom line, PG&E doesn’t want to risk having its power lines start another fire, so it is pre-emptively turning the power off during this week’s dry, windy weather. The company made the decision based on information from its wildfire center, where meteorologists keep watch on fire conditions.

PG&E’s power lines have sparked many catastrophic wildfires in California, including last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that caused 85 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years. PG&E lines started more than a dozen fires in 2017. Less than a month ago, the company agreed to pay billion in a settlement with victims of the recent fires.

The shutoffs are part of its wildfire mitigation plan, mandated by the state and agreed to by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s top power regulator.  — Kevin Stark

Who Made This Decision? When Did They Make It? 

If past practice tells us anything, PG&E has been making and remaking this decision, with the help of its meteorological team, over several days. The utility says it considers weather, fuel and other conditions and observations, as well as the need for notice by state and local parties, when it decides to implement shutoffs. As we’ve seen over the last few days, the planned outage times can change with shifting conditions.

The fact is, there’s nothing new about turning off power lines when conditions get risky: San Diego Gas and Electric, with the permission of the CPUC, has mitigated fire risk this way since 2012. What is new are the guidelines PG&E filed just a year ago for its public safety power shutoff procedures.

For the last couple of years, the CPUC has required investor-owned utilities to describe their processes for arriving at decisions like the one affecting nearly three dozen California counties right now. PG&E shut off power two times last year; the last time PG&E called a public safety power shutoff, for two days in June, it affected about 22,000 customers in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills, including Butte County and Paradise.  — Molly Peterson

This Is Intolerable. Why Can’t PG&E Just Bury The Lines?

For new construction, PG&E places most power lines underground, so its main issue is dealing with 81,000 miles of existing overhead lines.

That’s no small feat. A little back-of-the-envelope math: Strung together, the lines could extend there and back from San Francisco to Buenos Aires about four times.  Burying lines is very expensive. On its website, PG&E estimates it would cost $3 million per mile to puts its lines underground. So $3 million x 81,000 miles = $243 billion, which is more than California’s entire 2019 budget. One report suggests that burying lines in urban places can be even more expensive—up to $5 million a mile.

Still, consumer safety advocates argue that leaders in Sacramento should require the utility to bury lines in heavily populated, high-risk fire areas. — Kevin Stark

Why Can’t the State Take Over PG&E and Solve This Mess?

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, though there’s no real model for a state taking over a publicly traded utility of this size. We also have yet to see the political will for this to occur. One reason is that taxpayers would have to take on the financial responsibility that just bankrupted PG&E—liability for its aging, unsafe electrical grid.

If there were a way to untangle PG&E’s many stakeholders and its various functions—don’t forget, it’s a gas company, too—other challenges would emerge: For one, figuring out how to value its massive assets and sorting out how the state would foot the bill for them, especially since ratepayers have already been paying for the system. Also, the main wildfire problems of aging, poorly maintained electrical transmission lines in rural, fire-prone areas, as well as more frequently occurring climate change-driven severe weather, are not going away, no matter who is in charge.

Public power does exist in California—Sacramento and Los Angeles both have it, and San Francisco is offering to buy PG&E’s assets within city limits. But that’s different than completely ending PG&E as we know it and making it a public, state-run power company. It’s worth mentioning that PG&E workers largely oppose this option.

One idea that’s been floated: Breaking up PG&E into smaller companies. —  Marisa Lagos

Will These Power Shutoffs Work?

We’ll have to wait and see. There are many other ways fires can start: discarded cigarette butts, overheated cars idling over dry vegetation, chains dragging on the ground and sparking. — Danielle Venton

Why Are These Winds So Dangerous?

These are known as “Diablo winds,” although they’re not necessarily hot. They are, however, pretty typical for this time of year. Their speed and dryness make them especially good at fanning and spreading flames. That can turn a potentially manageable wildfire into an out-of-control inferno.

These winds that are so good at driving wildfires actually start out cold. Early autumn’s big, cold air masses, brought by the jet stream, first move over Washington and Oregon then head to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. This cold air is drier because it holds less moisture, and it has relatively higher pressure than the warmer air sitting over California. The meeting of these air currents propels the winds over the Sierra. As the winds move downslope, they speed up, the air compresses and warms, and the humidity plummets. This removes moisture from the landscape, and makes any spark more likely to start a wildfire. — Danielle Venton

Will Any Good Come Of This Shutdown?

Well, one thing is that the outages are testing the region’s emergency response system. They could expose weaknesses that can be fixed before the next major earthquake hits—for example, Caltrans administrators realized they needed to install a backup generator at the Caldecott Tunnel.

The shutoffs underscore another fact: PG&E’s grid technology is outdated and clunky. The utility proactively shut off power on Wednesday morning, only to have people wake up to no electricity, less-than-gusty wind conditions, and warnings that the lights could remain off for days.

The disruption could serve as a focusing event for California to invest in local wind, solar, battery storage and other technologies that would turn neighborhoods into small power islands, called microgrids, said Peter Asmus, a director at Navigant Research, a market research firm for the power sector.

“Forecasts are often wrong,” he said. “In an ideal situation, you would have the flexibility to make real-time adjustments.”

Puerto Ricans lived without electricity for months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017. Now its main utility plans to divide the entire island into a series of microgrids that could offer resiliency and flexibility.

PG&E has not widely adopted that technology. But, Asmus suggested, “the shutoffs are going to drive California to be the leader in microgrids in the U.S.” — Kevin Stark

Segment Guests

Lauren Sommer

Lauren Sommer is a science and environment reporter for KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

ANNOUNCER: This is KER– for WWNO– St. Louis Public Radio– Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. This week, we go to California where fire season has hit hard. Last night, a large fire broke out north of Los Angeles. And earlier in the week, blackouts hit counties around the state. Not because the grid is overloaded, but because those hot, dry autumn winds– the Santa Anas and the Diablos– were roaring across the state, creating dangerous fire conditions should a live electric wire go down and ignite that, the brush below it.

Electrical lines sparked last year’s deadly Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise California. You remember that? And the big utilities were taking precautions this year to prevent it from happening again. But residents were in an uproar as the blackouts affected their daily lives, whether it’s no internet or no way to get to work or communicate.

The hazards are potentially even greater for people with disabilities who depend on electricity to power medical equipment. And in the labs of UC Berkeley, scientists were loading their freezers onto trucks in hopes of saving their samples that needed to stay in the refrigerator. Reporting on all of this is Lauren Sommer, climate correspondent at KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back, Lauren.


IRA FLATOW: So give us the basics. Why is it necessary to switch off the power for so many people?

LAUREN SOMMER: Well, we know for a lot of the extreme fires that California has seen in recent years, they’ve been caused by downed power lines. We know they can start fires. But this is a very blunt tool that the utilities are using right now, right? Millions of people in California that are without power.

So there’s just been a real debate in this state about how to deal with our fire problem, right? I mean, it’s a huge inconvenience. You’re losing economic output. You’re inconveniencing people. There are vulnerable populations that are hit by power outages. And yet, you have this extreme fire problem where people die and you lose billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s sort of a catch-22 here. You have to decide which is the lesser of two evils, turning off the power and problems that might happen when you do turn the power on.

LAUREN SOMMER: Exactly. There’s some really uncomfortable math here to do, right? Because people can die if you are on a medical device that needs power. But people can also die in a fire. And I think what we’ll really see happen is, there’s a question of how much power needs to go off and under what conditions.

That’s going to receive a lot of scrutiny. Because this was a huge area that lost power. But we have this fire problem that’s incredibly challenging to fix that will require a lot of other things besides turning off power.

IRA FLATOW: You did a story about how this has disrupted research at UC Berkeley. I touched on it briefly. Give us some of the details.

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, so UC Berkeley lost its power supply from the utility here in Northern California. They do have a small power plant on campus that can supply some buildings, and some buildings have generators. But it’s not everyone that gets the power. So earlier this week, a lot of scientists and researchers were freaking out, understandably.

I spoke to one who studies butterflies, these painted lady butterflies. He packed up 500 caterpillars and took them home. They’re in his living room right now. He’s just sitting there with his caterpillars to save them.

But the stakes are extremely high for scientists that need to have frozen specimens. There’s a lot of scientists with freezers that are at negative ADC. Because that’s how you can have this long-term preservation of cell lines and bacteria. And so they actually packed up about 17 of these freezers and sent them across San Francisco Bay to UCSF where they could be kind of safeguarded. But there was a lot of stress at that university this week.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. So is this the new normal, something that California is going to have to live with?

LAUREN SOMMER: Yeah, I think that’s what everybody is really talking about right now. Because we can expect to see these power outages again. We get these really extreme winds in the fall. The air is extremely dry. I mean, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

But a lot of people are focusing on other solutions. Maybe there’s microgrids, right, these little kind of electric grids where you’ve got solar panels and other power sources. And they can kind of act like their own little power islands. That’s one thing people are interested in.

Another is, can we make communities safer, better built in these areas that are extremely high risk for fires? We’ve got old houses with wood roofs. We’ve got dangerous vegetation. We need to spend money on that too.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thank you very much. Lauren Sommer, climate correspondent at KQED in San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.


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