Advertisement
Environment

The California Blackouts Are Leading to Fear, Rage, and Uncharged Teslas

The decision to cut power in the Bay Area and elsewhere has led to residents struggling in all sorts of ways.

by Harry Cheadle
Oct 10 2019, 7:56pm

A customer shopping at a store during a blackout in Napa, California. Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty

This week, as California utility PG&E cut power to hundreds of thousands of residents in 34 counties across the northern half of the state, a wave of justifiable anger bubbled up. It wasn't just that the much-maligned private monopoly was leaving so many without power to lessen the risk of catastrophic wildfires. It was that this choice is the culmination of years of bad decisions that have left California with an infrastructure ill-suited to the risks of a world gripped by climate change.

As California entered a potentially dangerous time for wildfires, PG&E had reason to be worried. Windy conditions meant that the company's equipment could be damaged and ignite dry vegetation. That was the cause of fires in past years, including the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history; lawsuits related to that blaze led PG&E to file for bankruptcy in January.

To avoid one bad option, the company embraced another, sending residents and businesses scrambling. Here’s an incomplete list of the fallout from the blackout:

  • Refrigerators shutting down means that food in fridges will spoil, and PG&E likely won't reimburse individuals or even restaurants that might have to throw out thousands of dollars worth of perishables.
  • As blackouts approached in many areas, frantic residents bought batteries, generators, and fuel en masse, creating hours-long lines at stores and gas stations.
  • Dozens of public schools in the Bay Area announced closures due to the blackout.
  • Tesla was advising owners of its electric cars to charge them now or risk being left without transportation.
  • BART was continuing to run trains during the power outage but there were delays.
  • Hospitals were gearing up for a major test of their emergency systems.
  • Those who rely on electricity for oxygen tanks or other life-saving equipment were advised by the city of Berkeley's Twitter account to evacuate themselves somehow, or call 911 if they were in truly dire straits:
  • The Oakland Zoo said it was worried about endangered species that would die if the zoo's power failed—officials told local news that they would rely on generators for a few days, but if the blackout lasted longer than that, they would have to find additional fuel.
  • The University of California, Berkeley, reportedly didn't have any way to keep sensitive research samples refrigerated, leading some scientists to send things like cells that must be kept cold to other schools.

Do you have a tip about fallout from the blackout? Send it to harry.cheadle@vice.com.

Despite all this, some observers believed that stopping a potential catastrophic fire was worth it. Governor Gavin Newsom agreed with the decision to shut power down, but added, "They're in bankruptcy because of their terrible management going back decades… They created these conditions."

It's perhaps unfair to blame PG&E for climate change making wildfires more dangerous, but it's true that the company's out-of-date infrastructure has put the state at risk. The culprit for the spark that lit the Camp Fire may have been a bolt that failed and caused a power line to fall—a bolt that was 100 years old. In July, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the company knew of the risks its faulty equipment posed and still failed to prioritize necessary upgrades.

Reformers have suggested solutions including breaking up the grid into solar-powered "microgrids" or putting PG&E under public control so it’s not governed by a profit motive; San Francisco has offered to buy the company's grid in the city for $2.5 billion. But in the short term, as power is restored for some people, all anyone can do in the face of the blackout is look for someone to blame.

On Tuesday, California Highway Patrol announced that it was investigating whether someone had thrown a rock through the window of a PG&E truck on I-5—or whether it was actually gunfire.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.