Governor Newsom was stuck between a rock and a hard place this week with Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) impacting all three major utilities. While Newsom publicly supported the PSPS, he also publicly slammed PG&E, as the Santa Ana winds fueled fires that erupted in Southern California.
“I don’t think they’re making a mistake, as it relates to proactive measures to mitigate the prospect of fires,” Newsom said at a bill signing ceremony in San Diego on October 9, 2019. “ I think that’s the right decision.”
Yet Newsom also acknowledged public frustration and blamed PG&E for putting the state in a situation where the blackouts were necessary.
“They’re in bankruptcy because of their terrible management, going back decades. They created these conditions.”
Newsom then complimented San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), praising the utility for hardening its grid and bolstering its wildfire prevention efforts, as an example of how PG&E should have done better.
“I’m outraged because it didn’t need to happen. Didn’t need to happen if you had an investor-owned utility that was making the kind of investments that your investor-owned utility was making down here, and focusing on modern transmission lines, and focusing on modern ways of turning on and off lights that wouldn’t be disruptive in the aggregate to a million or 2 million people.”
On his return to Sacramento Thursday, Newsom lamented the power outages, saying,”What has occurred in the last 48 hours is unacceptable, people can’t even access water or medical supplies.”
PG&E, though, suggested it was already seeing the wisdom of its decision borne out as gusts topping 77 miles per hour resulted in “multiple cases of damage or hazards” caused by the heavy winds, including fallen branches that came in contact with overhead lines.
“If they were energized,” PG&E said in a statement, “they could have ignited.”
Because of the dangerous weather in the forecast, PG&E cut power Wednesday to an estimated 2 million people in an area that spanned the San Francisco Bay Area, the wine country north of San Francisco, the
agricultural Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills. By Saturday afternoon, power had been restored to all customers.
Marybel Batjer, President of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), blasted PG&E’s communication and said the situation was unacceptable.
“This has been absolutely unacceptable to communities, to individual people, to the commerce of our state and the safety of our people. This cannot be the new normal and won’t be.”
Deliberate blackouts are likely to become less disruptive as PG&E gets experience managing them and rebuilds sections of the grid so that outages can be more targeted, according to Michael Wara, director of the energy and climate program at the Stanford University Woods Institute and member of the state Commission on Wildfire Cost and Recovery.
“That’s a skill that has to be learned and PG&E is learning it at a mass scale right now,” Wara said, adding that after a June shut-off in the Sierra foothills, PG&E workers reported repairing numerous areas of wind damage, including power lines hit by tree branches. “That was worth it. That could have prevented a catastrophe.”
As the outages were happening, the website that PG&E set up to keep customers informed was overwhelmed with queries and failed. A subsequent website was launched, which also failed. Adding to the PG&E missteps, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that on Monday and Tuesday of this week, just before the PSPS was called, 12 PG&E employees were partying at a Sonoma winery with 50 to 60 of their top customers. Not illegal, but optically terrible.
Finally, Michael Wara made more news on Friday when he noted on Twitter that the PG&E PSPS’ likely impact to residential customers could be $65 million. Adding in small commercial and industrial customers could raise it to $2.5 billion.
The fire danger spread to Southern California on Thursday as raging Santa Ana winds moved down the state. Southern California Edison (SCE) shut off power to about 13,000 customers just outside of Los Angeles as the Saddleridge fire in the San Fernando Valley exploded to nearly 8,000 acres by early Sunday amid powerful Santa Ana winds, threatening numerous foothill communities and closing the 210 and 5 freeways.
The fire, which started in Sylmar, moved rapidly to the west toward Granada Hills and Porter Ranch, where unfortunately, homes were lost. Hundreds of homes remain threatened across a wide area, as the fire is only 40% contained as of late Sunday, October 13.
SCE said that up to 200,000 could be shutoff in Los Angeles, Mono, Inyo, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Kern counties. SDG&E said it too may shut off power to 32,000 customers, though no de-energization had been initiated as of this morning.
While PG&E remains the popular political punching bag, the fact is that the legislature and Governor Newsom agreed earlier in the year that PSPS was the only answer to preventing wildfires for now. With this being the case, criticizing the utilities for declaring a PSPS could become a political liability – as the authority to call these outages was granted by the very same people who are now calling them “unacceptable.”