At the end of summer, weather-tracking services in California began issuing reports that many in the state have come to dread: extreme winds and dry conditions had increased the risk of wildfires. The previous year had been one of California’s worst due to disasters like the Camp Fire, an enormous blaze that killed more than 80 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. In the aftermath of this tragedy, many blamed the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for failing to cut trees and maintain lines. Months later, the utility admitted that one of its transmission lines was likely responsible for igniting the Camp Fire.
So with wildfires once again bearing down on California, PG&E announced that it would take drastic measures to avoid disaster. On October 4th, the utility informed state officials that it would temporarily shut off power to large parts of the state. PG&E didn’t tell the public about it until a few days later, however, and by the next day the blackouts had started. The situation almost immediately turned chaotic as millions lost power with little warning. While stoplights and businesses went dark across the state, nursing homes and hospitals struggled to find backup power sources. PG&E’s website crashed as well, making it impossible for customers to find out whether or not they would lose power. The rolling blackouts affected more than 700,000 homes and businesses throughout California, leading to the exact kind of confusion and danger that PG&E said they wanted to avoid.
Although most people had power restored within a few days, the damage was already done. Many state officials and consumers voiced their anger at PG&E, which already faces more than $30 billion in liabilities from recent wildfires caused by its equipment. Nevertheless, the utility industry will likely continue to use rolling blackouts as a way to combat wildfires. But if California lawmakers have their way, that won’t be the case for long. “The situation frankly has been unacceptable,” said Marybel Batjer, president of California’s utilities commission. “The impacts to individual communities, to individual people, to the commerce of our state, to the safety of our people, has been less than exemplary. This cannot be the new normal. We can’t accept it as the new normal. And we won’t.”
- Do you think California legislators should pass a law that prevents utilities from imposing rolling blackouts? Why or why not?
- Should PG&E face legal action for imposing rolling blackouts on Californians with little warning?
Source: Ivan Penn, “‘This Did Not Go Well’: Inside PG&E’s Blackout Control Room,” The New York Times, October 12, 2019.