Why Is This Happening? Answers to Your Questions on the PG&E Shutdown

A pedestrian walks past a row of power lines in Rosemead, California on October 9, 2019, as California braces for the possibility of widespread power outages. ( FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

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

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Who Made This Decision and When?

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

Why Are the Shutoffs So Widespread?

Essentially, PG&E says that current conditions warrant extreme caution. The utility does its own predictive analysis, with a dedicated page offering a 7-day forecast of the possibility of a public safety power shutoff. As a rationale for the current outages, members of PG&E’s meteorological team have pointed out that Diablo and Santa Ana winds, along with low humidity and dry surface fuels, are making the state vulnerable to wildfire. Apart from PG&E’s in-house operation, the National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for large chunks of California, and PG&E says these are “in alignment” with its own analysis.

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, says these dangerous winds, though occurring annually, haven’t been this widespread in the state since the Wine Country Fires of 2017, before PG&E had instituted its de-energization protocol.

Wara also says PG&E may have had to cast a wide net because the energy infrastructure of California wasn’t built to accommodate the kind of fire risk we’re now experiencing.

“You'll have a power line that will serve one valley and then go up and over a ridge to serve the next valley,” Wara told KQED's Miranda Leitsinger. “And that means that if you have to turn that light off, you could black out both valleys in addition to the ridgetop — even though the risk is only on the ridgetop.”

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is a longtime critic of the company who is questioning the widespread nature of the outage. In a letter sent to the California Public Utilities Commission Wednesday, he wrote:

“I strongly disagree with the binary position currently offered by PG&E - they can turn the power off and shut down the economy and livelihoods of millions in California, an action which may protect us from wildfire, or they can roll the dice and continue with the lights on, and risk an enormous fire starting from their power lines. This situation is not acceptable nor sustainable."

Hill wrote that a public safety power shutoff must be a surgical, last resort measure.”

In any event, PG&E will have to say more about the choices it made: The utility must file a CPUC report with information related to its decisionmaking 10 days after the shutoff event ends. —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&Es 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

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

Will These Power Shutoffs Work?

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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

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