By James B. Meigs
Pacific Gas & Electric, Northern California’s largest power supplier, recently announced that it will begin shutting down parts of the grid, possibly for days at a time, to help reduce the risk of wildfires. Known as “de-energization,” the process sounds like a metaphor for societal collapse—a return to the Dark Ages—but the policy carries a certain perverse logic.
California has always had wildfires, but recent conflagrations have been particularly devastating. Last November’s Camp Fire burned over 150,000 acres, destroyed the town of Paradise, and killed 85 people, making it the deadliest fire in the state’s history. Like many large California wildfires, that one was sparked—quite literally—by an electric power line and then spread by intense winds. In past years, utilities have occasionally shut off power to certain portions of the grid on the windiest days. Through new rules, the state’s power regulators now permit PG&E and other utilities to shut off power to more customers during periods of elevated risk.
The shutdowns have already begun. In early June, PG&E cut off power to parts of Napa and other northern counties on a day when wind gusts reached as high as 71 miles per hour. De-energization traditionally affected people in rural areas, where local power lines traverse forests and scrublands. But PG&E has expanded the policy to the high-voltage lines that transmit power long distances and supply large cities. It seems absurd that the Bay Area, the global epicenter of high-tech industry, could lose power because of a windy day. But that’s the reality, and there are no quick solutions.
Where people go, power lines must follow. Utilities have no choice but to serve fire-prone communities. And power lines themselves vastly amplify the risk that fires will occur. Overgrown vegetation can cause short circuits and dead branches can ignite if they get blown into wires. In high winds, the lines themselves sometimes “slap” into each other and shower the ground below with sparks. Cal Fire, the state agency that manages wildfire policy, recently confirmed that a PG&E power line did indeed spark the Camp Fire blaze. “The booming industry up here in Butte County is the lawyers signing people up to sue PG&E,” a former Paradise town councilman said. PG&E says it has set over $10 billion aside to cover fire claims.