California utility again cutting power to wildfire-prone areas

California has been reasonably fortunate this year in terms of outbreaks of major wildfires, at least as compared to last year. Some of these fires are set by careless or malicious humans, while others are simply bad luck and acts of God. But in at least a few cases, utility giant PG&E was blamed and they wound up facing billions of dollars in fines and other penalties in the wake of some disastrous burns. Earlier this year they started taking preventative measures, cutting off power to the lines running through “red flag” regions that were prone to go up in smoke.

Now, with the dry season back in force, they’re doing it again. And some of the locals aren’t happy about it. (Associated Press)

California’s two largest utilities were considering cutting power Monday to tens of thousands of customers as fall brings back dangerous weather conditions and the companies try to head off wildfires sparked by electrical equipment.

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. was expected to decide by Monday evening whether controlled power outages affecting as many as 21,000 customers would be needed to ease the risk of wildfires in Northern California.

Meanwhile, Southern California Edison said it might shut off power to 41,000 customers due to forecasts calling for gusty Santa Ana winds. The utility initially estimated about 10,000 customers could be impacted.

It’s understandable that people become upset when the power company preemptively shuts off their electricity. It’s particularly problematic for those requiring in-home medical equipment with limited battery backup and no generator. Some of them may be forced to relocate if the outages last more than a day or two.

But what are the utility companies supposed to do? PG&E already paid $11 billion to insurance companies settling claims from last year’s fires and they’re looking at up to another $30 billion in pending litigation. They filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year and you’re eventually going to run that well dry.

It’s not that the utility is entirely without blame here. If the reports we’ve been getting are accurate, a lot of their towers out in remote areas are many years overdue for maintenance and repairs. There’s also a lot of work to be done in terms of trimming or removing trees that are too close to the lines and may blow down during a storm. If the company knew that obligation fell on their shoulders and they didn’t get the work done, they’ll need to take the blame for some of these fires.

But at the same time, I can’t escape the feeling that trees being blown down on power lines because of a severe storm are also kind of in the “Act of God” category to a certain extent. And the other factor to consider is what happens if these costs take down PG&E completely? Who would buy the company at this point knowing the liability they will face the moment they flip the power on during the dry season? Perhaps California would have to take over the system and run it as a public utility.

Good Lord… that last sentence should give everyone chills. Given how well they do managing their own budget and public affairs, can you imagine what they would do to a corporation of that size?

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