Power Company is Bankrupt and Power is Off. What Did You Expect?

By: John Shepler

Power lines tower over a dark landscape
The Lines are Up, The Power is Off

Millions of Californians scramble to deal with the new reality of life under climate change. The power company is bankrupt and has shut off the electricity in the San Francisco bay area. Was there a massive earthquake? Nuclear attack? Solar flare? Nope. Just a couple of centuries of global warming come home to roost.

We take our 21st century conveniences for granted. My grandparents and all who remember the days of horses, buggies, oil lamps, and outhouses are long departed. The generations alive today were never awed by the coming of steam power. We were born into the electrical world. Flip a switch and things happen. Don’t necessarily know how or even care. Electricity, natural gas, and gasoline. Those power sources are always there for us. Well… they were.

Pacific Gas and Electric may well be faulted for not being prescient enough, but who was? What power engineer was thinking ahead to a time when one spark could burn down the state? All of our utility systems were built and evolved over many decades to support the world we expected. You know, the California dream with its thriving forests, mountains and seashores. Now we watch as, year after year, the state is charred from top to bottom.

Oh, wildfires are nothing new. What is new, and doesn’t seem to be going away, is the relentless burning. One fire gets put out… the next one starts. Sometimes they grow into each other to make one gigantic disaster. It is said, almost as a joke, that soon there will be a year-round fire season. Well, it’s not so funny and it’s here. If it’s not continuous fire, it’s fear of fire.

It’s Broke and You’ve Got to Fix It

Why is the power off? It’s not like Puerto Rico, where hurricane winds knocked down the transmission lines. The infrastructure is still standing just like it has been. It all works, too. The power is off simply because the people who run it are afraid to leave it on. It’s not a fear that the system will overload and destroy lines and transformers or knock out generating stations. It’s not even a fear that someone will get electrocuted. It’s a fear that something, somewhere will fail… just like mechanical things do.

Now it is too scary to think that some connection will break and sparks will fly. If they do, another massive fire may destroy thousands and thousands of acres, including structures like houses and businesses. Even if no one is hurt, the cost will be astronomical and who will get blamed? The people with the equipment that made the spark. It’s not that they can’t deliver the power under nearly any conditions. It’s that the organization, already stampeded into bankruptcy over impending lawsuits, can’t afford to take the chance they won’t get stuck with another massive cost. The risk just doesn’t seem worth it to ensure the food in your freezer or to avoid the inconvenience of sweating with no AC, or even the cost of lost business, day after day.

So, the choice is grab the pitchforks and torches (batteries are dead in the flashlights) and march on PG&E, or face the reality that this is just the start of progressively worse climate related disasters, not the simple failure of complacent management.

Scenario #1 — Them That Can, Will

This won’t go on forever. Well, at least not for everybody. There is a thought that Silicon Valley will rise to fix this. They certainly will… for Silicon Valley. One solution for those with resources is simply cut the cord and get away from the sinking ship. Technical liberation is readily available. Simply cover the roof with solar panels and install backup batteries with inverters to be your own off-grid power company. You’ll need to over-provision to ensure that you’ll have enough juice no matter what. That means more panels than necessary and batteries big enough to handle dark days as well as overnight. Extra insurance can be had with a backup generator running on natural gas or a big tank of diesel fuel.

Companies and communities can band together to create micro-grids over small areas. Power can be shared among those with extra and those who have temporary needs. You know, that’s what we thought we had with the state-wide and national power grids, but if now it’s everybody for themselves…

Individuals of means and well-healed companies will almost certainly take measures to protect their interests. That leaves the poor and struggling who can barely afford flashlight batteries and will just have to revert to a less technical lifestyle, and the masses in the middle-class who are even now buying gas generators to at least keep the fridge running plus a light or two.

Clearly this is not a comprehensive or long term approach to maintaining the infrastructure of modern society, but it might just stabilize as a new norm if the outages aren’t too frequent and the centralized power company stays in business. Surely, though, there is a better way.

Scenario #2 — It’s Time to Stop Pretending

The best time to have been anticipating this day and protecting against these problems was decades ago. The next best time is right now. Californians need to take this as their moon shot rallying cry. It will take the populace and the government and business all pulling in the same direction to make the necessary adjustments. Otherwise, it’s going to be a hodgepodge of ad-hoc solutions with nothing for the common good and little efficiency.

First, it has to become accepted that permanent fire season is here to stay. There may be seasonal relief and maybe a moderate year or two. But the monster firestorms are not too far away and they will be devastating.

With that in mind, the state needs to be made less burnable. The forests need to be cleaned up. Anything flammable under power lines has to be neutralized. New construction has to be fireproof. In fact, fireproof has to become the state motto.

In the short term, the power has to come back on and stay on. Today’s society won’t function without it. The immediate solution is for the state to indemnify the power company against accidents and acts of god. That means the tax coffers pick up the costs of the destruction to spread the pain around. Sure, you can kill the bad old power company, but then you won’t have any power, will you?

PG&E has to do its part to make the system as fireproof as possible. It has to be a priority, cost or no cost. Faster acting automatic fault detection and interruption might help in some cases. Buried lines may help in others. More frequent inspection and maintenance could catch problems before they become fire starters.

Long term, the entire power generating and distribution system needs to be re-engineered around the future of local renewable generating systems such as distributed solar, wind, wave and tidal, combined with local battery storage interconnected as micro grids. The role of the power authority will be to manage distribution and payments rather than central station generation. Clearly, major industries and public utilities will require more power than can be locally produced. That means long distance lines will still be needed, but must have protections so that they cannot start fires.

Government has a major role to play, too. Not just as a cheerleader to rally the population for fire safety. The heavy hand of regulation may well be appropriate to keep a close eye on management and other functions to ensure that company actions are meeting the planned objectives. This could be a key element in the reorganization from bankruptcy plan.

Will it cost? You bet it will. What’s the alternative? Return to a primitive subsistence lifestyle? California may be on the front line now, but the rest of us will soon join them. More violent hurricanes in the Atlantic along with rising sea levels are going to submerge large parts of the East coast and sooner than most expect. The Midwest will be dealing with crippling heat waves, polar vortexes and massive tornadoes as the climate continues to shift. National leadership would sure be helpful, but failing agreement on that, states and multi-state alliances will just have to get the job done.

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