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The Company That's Caused California Wildfires Is Cutting Off Power to 2 Million People to Avoid Another One

The state of California allowed PG&E to start charging customers billions more so it could upgrade its grid. The company still hasn't.

by Alex Lubben
Oct 9 2019, 5:34pm

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The utility giant responsible for deadly California wildfires announced Tuesday that it would shut off power to about 2.4 million people for several days to avoid another round of catastrophic blazes. Some 500,000 Californians are already without power.

The company, PG&E, filed for bankruptcy in January after coming under a barrage of lawsuits relating to its role in the fires in California in the last two years. The utility’s equipment failures were responsible for several deadly wildfires. Most recently, the Camp Fire killed 85 people in Paradise, California, when a live wire broke loose from one of the company’s towers. PG&E’s own guidelines put the tower 25 years beyond its useful life, according to the New York Times.

After wildfires in wine country in 2017, the state of California allowed the company to start charging customers more so it could upgrade its grid. But it still hasn’t made necessary repairs. Now, the company is cutting power altogether as a last-ditch attempt to keep high winds from damaging electrical equipment and igniting blazes.

The blackouts are expected to impact 34 counties and up to 800,000 residential and business customers. Never before has a utility in California left so many people in the dark to reduce fire risk, which has increased steadily as the world has gotten hotter. Southern California Edison, which powers the Los Angeles area, has also said it might cut power for about 106,000 customers.

“This kind of thing happens because of natural disasters, and here we’re having an unnatural disaster to avoid an even worse natural disaster,” Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University, told the Los Angeles Times.

The blackouts will affect heavily populated as well as rural areas in Northern California. Local officials in parts of the Bay Area have warned their residents to expect to be without power for up to six days. (The utility has said to expect five days without power.) The city of Berkeley told people living in the hilly neighborhoods of the city to leave before the blackouts hit if they thought they’d have trouble evacuating in an emergency, according to Berkeleyside.

For many, the fires may be just an inconvenience. But the disabled and the elderly may find themselves stranded or unable to power necessary medical equipment. Some are shelling out thousands to buy themselves generators to be sure they can weather the blackouts.

Without power, cell service could drop off. Traffic signals won’t work.

State officials acknowledged that the blackouts were more than just a huge headache for Californians but defended PG&E’s decision to cut power to prevent another deadly wildfire.

“It is a massive inconvenience,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a bill-signing ceremony on Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times. “No one wants to see this happen. But it is a public safety issue.”

Others were more critical.

“I think they need to spend the billions they’ve already received to harden the system,” State Sen. Jerry Hill told Bloomberg.

Cover image: In this Nov. 10, 2018 file photo, with a downed power utility pole in the foreground, Eric England, right, searches through a friend's vehicle after the wildfire burned through Paradise, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)