This past week, utility company PG&E shut off power to some 172,000 households, forcing people to bear triple-digit temperatures without air conditioning. It mirrors choices the utility made last year in an attempt to stave off electric infrastructure sparking fires, something that happened in the 2018 wildfire season from hell with deadly consequences. The state has also seen rolling blackouts this year in the midst of record-setting heat waves.
The grid, as it exists, is simply not sustainable. Blackouts put people in harm’s way, whether its cutting them off from access to critical wildfire alerts or reducing access to air conditioning and life-saving medical devices like respirators or medicine that needs to be kept cold. Simply accepting that electricity and fires can’t co-exist isn’t an option, though. But PG&E and other utilities across the West as well as communities themselves have steps available right now to to get their infrastructure up-to-date with the more fiery present and future.
First, we have to understand how we got here. While the climate has made forests more flammable, the infrastructure there has often provided the spark to ignite them. Downed PG&E wires caused at least 1,500 fires over the course of six years, including the deadly Camp Fire of 2018.
“PG&E has done so little to maintain or replace power lines that need work, which is part of why they’re so volatile,” said Jessica Tovar, energy democracy organizer at Local Clean Energy Alliance.
The Camp Fire, which basically destroyed the entire town of Paradise and surrounding communities, led PG&E to declare bankruptcy. The utility faced huge financial liability for the death and destruction it caused. To reduce fire risks (and exposure to more lawsuits), the utility has taken to intentionally cutting households’ and businesses’ power off. Last year, PG&E shut off power to millions of Californians.