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A post-mortem on flaming California – Alex Zhao

Powerless, Californians look for someone to blame

In the fall of 2019, millions of Californians across the state experienced up to five days without power. Due to a voluntary blackout by PG&E, vast swathes of northern and central California went without electricity. At UC Berkeley, classes were canceled for three consecutive days with little warning for staff or students. In a country with relatively high electricity coverage and robust infrastructure, it seems odd to experience such a prolonged, widespread outage.

Powerless for most of a week, Californians had a glimpse of the fragility of the developed world’s systems — patients dependent on medical equipment risked injury or death, researchers in biology labs lost painstakingly collected data, and entire towns shut down for business. It left us all asking — who’s to blame? Are outages an inevitable consequence from the continuing march of climate change, or simply a case of corporate incompetence?

Have blackouts gotten worse?

In theory, as electricity infrastructure improves over time, American blackouts should occur less frequently with less intensity. Research by Hines, Apt, and Talukdar at Carnegie Mellon University, however, finds that blackout frequency between 1984 and 2006 did not decrease. The authors identify key flaws in the enforcement of system-wide reliability measures and problems in transmission of power. Transmission refers to the movement of electricity from the place it is generated to the end consumer.

More recent publications from the Lawrence Lab at Berkeley suggest that the frequency of major blackouts has stayed stagnant, though the aggregate minutes spent without electricity has increased.

Source: The Brattle Group

Surprisingly, researchers at the Lawrence Lab further found that investment in transmission development had no correlation with decreased blackouts.

This chart from Williams et al. shows the total area burned by wildfires in California by year.

There is a well-established correlation between the increase in temperature through anthropogenic climate change and the intensity of wildfires in California. In 2019, a group of earth scientists from Columbia University and Scripps Institute in California identified “warming‐driven increases in atmospheric aridity, which works to dry fuels and promote summer forest fire, particularly in the North Coast and Sierra Nevada regions.”

These changes in California’s ecosystems are in many cases responsible for blackouts. Lawrence Lab researchers emphasized a relationship between extreme weather events and raised likelihood of blackouts. Based on several models, they isolated factors such as “extreme wind” and aridity as key factors in predicting the chance of a blackout.

But is the climate truly to blame for the recent blackouts? How about PG&E, the electricity company with glitchy websites and inability to notify residents about impending crises?

Beyond PG&E’s recent snafus, the utility company has faced criticism for years over its management practices and failure to address infrastructure flaws. In 1984, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) ascended to become the United States’ largest electric utility company and now serves 5.2 million customers throughout California. In January 14, 2019, PG&E filed for bankruptcy due to rising costs incurred during the California wildfires in previous years. To preempt further wildfires in 2019, the company shut down power to customers with little warning starting in October.

Of all utility companies nationwide, PG&E has some of the highest electricity prices. Although high utility prices are offset by California’s impressive power efficiency, recent trends point to further price increases by PG&E in the near future as management of its hydroelectric generators becomes more expensive.

Bill Johnson, CEO of PG&E, who was hired after the wildfires in 2017

For years, California residents have lambasted PG&E for its sluggish response to energy crises. In 2018, the California Public Utilities Commission found that the firm had falsified records for five years to cover up delays in marking natural gas pipelines. Previously, the company has also opposed attempts from Berkeley to convert parts of their power supply to micro-grid infrastructure, which would reduce dependence on utility companies during outages. Lastly, the recent outages have exposed a culture of mismanagement and delayed repairs; worst of all, some fear the prolonged blackouts were an attempt to pressure lawmakers into lifting penalties on PG&E.

PG&E is the primary culprit in the recent outages. Their systemic failures to address transmission issues, slow responses to crises, and opaque culture resulted in a shoddy planning while California was in crisis. The company’s attitude toward power generation has been outpaced by forces outside their control — namely, climate change.

A warming California has augmented the risks of natural disasters, shifted the state’s ecological balance, and challenged citizens to rethink our attitudes toward energy. PG&E, a company dating from the Gold Rush, must reckon with the times — or risk torching their business.

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