Crackling wildfires. Widespread drought. Massive floods.
That is the kind of climate change that the movies predict — something harsh, devastating, and sudden. The truth is more subtle, California’s power outage last week being an example of the true type of future we have in store for us.
On Wednesday the 9th of October, Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the three big investor-owned utilities in California, shut down power for over 2 million Californians. The power outage crossed hundreds of miles across Northern California, undiscriminating from the affluent Napa and Santa Clara to sprawling coastal cities to ranches in the Sacramento Valley. By Friday, power was restored to all but 12,000.
The reason for this power outage? Strong winds. This meant that there was a strong risk that their electrical equipment could start another blazing wildfire. PG&E was determined not to let another fire happen after a state investigation surmised that PG&E lines caused the Camp Fire last year. It was the most destructive fire in California’s history, killing 85 people and ruining 20,000 buildings. A decade earlier, one of its gas lines south of San Francisco had exploded and killed eight people.
#PSPS – As soon as the weather passes, PG&E will begin safety inspections with 6,300 field personnel and 45 helicopters standing at the ready once we get the all clear https://t.co/PTQqAyEIVX pic.twitter.com/8pZo5mSRWY
— PG&E (@PGE4Me) October 10, 2019
California state law holds utilities liable for damage caused by wildfires started by their equipment. Already, in January, PG&E filed for bankruptcy, claiming over $30 billion in liability cost for the wildfires it was blamed for.
Thus PG&E has decided that the outages, which they call public safety power shut-offs will be used to reduce wildfire risk. “We must have zero risk of a spark. We will very likely have to make this kind of decision again in the future,” Bill Johnson, the Chief Executive of PG&E stated earlier.
This decision is extremely important for medical patients who depend on electricity to stay alive, or businesses that could lose their stock.
On Wednesday and Thursday, people were sent scrambling. Buildings lost power suddenly, without any warning. Nursing homes and other critical locations rushed to find backup power. Even the government was put on hold for several hours as PG&E struggled to control the crisis.
Elizaveta Malashenko, a state representative for the Public Utilities Commission, summarized the situation, saying, “There were definitely missteps. It’s pretty much safe in saying, this did not go well.”
PSPS 10/12 Update https://t.co/IHeNS1QX4H
— PG&E (@PGE4Me) October 12, 2019
The ramifications for the future are massive. If we are entering an era in which power outages are the solution to climate disasters, large numbers of people are endangered. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, says “If your remedy is cutting off power…you do that at a cost… You’re [creating] a significant risk for a large number of people.”
Quartz analyzed the cost of climate-related disasters over recent years, declaring that “[a]t least 10 weather and climate disaster events costing a billion dollars (or more) have hit the US for five consecutive years, an unprecedented amount. Over this time, the frequency of severe events has nearly tripled, with 3.75 severe events per year on average through the 1980s and 1990s, and rising to 11.6 events annually over the last five years.”
A calculation done by Michael Wara, a lawyer and energy-policy academic at Stanford, predicted that outages could cost the economy $2.5 billion — and that was assuming that the blackout would last its predicted length of 48 hours and its planned size of 800,000 customers.
This power outage may be long done by now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Each time, it’s a reminder of the tedium that comes with climate change slowly burning away at our earth — food spoiling in our fridges, people on medical support forced to leave town, waiting in winding lines for hours on end for a bit of gasoline.
It’s a warning that we all need to listen to.