a) Large parts of California have fire as part of their natural ecological lifecycle. In most of the U.S., downfall wood rots, but in most of California, it's too dry so it just sits there building up until it catches on fire.
b) People like to live near or in the woods, like they can in other states, so they lobby the government to suppress fires. Suppressing fires causes more buildup of downfall wood. If fires are always suppressed, the energy will simply keep building up until it can support a fire so fast and so extreme that it cannot be contained by Cal Fire.
c) We're experiencing some changes in the climate, and we just got out of a huge drought that killed off a very large number of trees in California.
There will always be ignition sources, whether it's a camp fire, a cigarette, power lines, an arsonist, a truck with a hot catalytic converter parked over dry grass, or lightning, large amounts of combustible material laying on the ground will eventually burn. If we just say the problem is poorly maintained power lines and fix all of them, or turn off the power for weeks every year, nothing will change. The fuel will still be there and eventually something will light it on fire.
I highly recommend this lecture by Stephen Pyne that goes into all of this and has some extremely interesting information about the history of fire suppression in the U.S., and how the Native Americans learned how to effectively manage fire in California over centuries. http://longnow.org/seminars/02016/feb/09/fire-slow-fire-fast...
No, as noted in April by the judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for it's culpability in causing the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion (probation of which it's role on the 2018 fires was ruled to be a violation), it's a result of the company knowingly maintaining an inadequate tree trimming budget while pumping out $4.5 billion to shareholders in dividends.
The root cause of this is hotter temperatures than the area is adapted to. They're up 3 deg F over average and rising. It's killing trees with drought paired with hotter fires than the native trees evolved to tolerate.
I don't mean to be gloomy but this is the just the beginning, it's getting much worse.
But also, there's fossil evidence of 200 year droughts in California: https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-pa...
It's us grumpy humans who moved in and sought to control it who are the problem. If you live there, your infrastructure should be impervious to fire. Nothing less. Let it burn!
see, for just one example, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/us/tower-pge-safety-cultu...
I think most of California understands that no system with hundreds of thousands of miles of equipment can be perfectly safe. However, from San Bruno, caused by faulty welds on installation , to continuing to use ancient equipment, there is plenty of room for safety increases. And PG&E is hardly struggling to stay afloat; they recorded over $0.5B of profit 18q3 . Had they not twice burned down swaths of California, along with blowing up the odd city, they would be a nicely profitable company today.
Which is, IMO, part of the problem. A utility should not be a profit-seeking corporation. They should not be paying out dividends to investors. Aside from money set aside for an unexpected emergency, they should not have profits whatsoever; every penny should be reinvested into the system.
There is no perfect system. The social contract for private utilities is that they can run like private corporations and make a few percent profit (the public controls their pricing). With some significant failures, it tends to work. Public utilities fail too - Chernobyl would be of course be the canonical example.
But... but... the power of free markets! The pension funds need safe investments!
Sarcasm aside: you are completely correct, but the US infrastructure needs so massive investments that there is no alternative to the private investment market given that many states have problems adequately funding basic cheap stuff such as schools.
That said, I'm not sure that would solve the problem. Managers of public companies/institutions often have incentives to cut down on costs too.
States would have less problem with that if they weren't bearing the costs of for-profit power.
You should try walking through a city with a freer market for taxis than you are used to. The externality of safety requires a heavily regulated market or you get freelancers and shell companies taking risks beyond their ability to cover.
People thought that too until they ended up in accidents in their Uber and suddenly discovered the issues arising when travelling in a commercial vehicle with no commercial insurance.
You fail to demonstrate how more of that free market fixes safety problems. If you are suggesting the normal solution, you will end up creating stacks of regulation to force people into "free markets" for services they should buy to offset externalities such as risk to 3rd parties, which will in turn seek ways to create new externalities to cut their costs. That stack of turtles can either collapse under its own weight and need to pay usury rates or not actually address many of the externalities, or both..
California burning down has been occurring for centuries - PG&E or not. Now what is happening is that real people are suffering because of no electricity since PG&E is doing the most logical thing it should have done even 2 yrs back.
In recent years, as you note, catalytic converters, power lines, welding equipment, cigarettes, mower blades, flat tires (rim scraping on asphalt), hammers, and broken glass have all started major fires. A Redding fire a few years ago was started by a man mowing his property -- the steel mower blade struck a rock and ignited a major blaze. Which is incredible enough, but the fact is that this risk was known, mowing at that time was prohibited, and he was prosecuted and convicted.
The fuel load is so increadibly dry, and "red flag" conditions, with high heat, low humidity, and gusty and often unpredictable winds, that any point of ignition can and will set off a blaze. Attempting to remove all points of ignition simply isn't sufficient or possible, though it may help in some cases.
A few cases and ignition causes mentioned here:
Bringing you constructive criticism here:
American states seem to have building and zoning codes regulating everything imaginable, but they let you build a residential in the woods without a fire safety zone...
The few states in US that have a recommendation on that put safety zones of just 150m or less
In the Camp and other recent fires, most structure losses were precipitated by blown embers, rather than direct exposure to a flame wall. In many places, the ember plume resembled a rain or constant stream, rather than individual embers or firebrands floating through the air, and any point of purchase or entry (dead leaves, brush near the house, exposed eaves, raised wooden decks or stairs) were potential ignition points. Embers entering into attics through eves seem to be a particularly pronounced factor.
A firebreak of ~100m is sufficient for most instances, if construction is fire-aware and flammable litter is kept to a minimum. Features such as sprinklers can also help -- even a small amount of water will keep surfaces below ignition point. (Though there can still be other heat and smoke damage to property and possessions.)
What's increasingly occurring in California is a merging of wild and urban fires as occurred in Ventura, Paradise, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen, and Redding in recent years. These are major conflagrations not at the urban-forest interface, but well within urban zones. Fire safety zones enough are proving insufficient in such cases.
Look at norms in other countries with hot and dry woodlands
"Second, any catastrophic wildfires caused by PG&E this year could upend the bankruptcy proceedings. That is because both bondholders’ and shareholders’ reorganization plans allow investors to back out if PG&E even appears to cause any catastrophic wildfires.
Specifically, both groups’ plans give investors the chance to withdraw their financing offers if unexplained fires in PG&E’s service area damage more than 500 buildings—unless its power lines were “de-energized” or turned off, or regulators clear it of responsibility. That may help explain the wide scope of this week’s precautionary power outages."
The management has their backs up against the wall and the interest groups involved don't care at all whether you have power, they just want to extract value from this company.
I expect parts of the Bay Area not in the hills to not lose power because if you can't clear brush around the high-voltage lines going to urban centers, you have no business being a utility.
It's not about holding the utility "liable for fires", it is holding them liable for gross negligence by failing to perform critical or routine maintenance. These aren't difficult or impossible problems. The Camp Fire was caused by a system that was significantly overdue for upgrading: https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-c...
Time and again, PG&E ignored maintenance requirements and funneled profits to execs and stockholders. The San Bruno pipeline explosion was also entirely preventable: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/How-PG-E-missed-chanc...
What's more, PG&E falsified safety records as a matter of course: https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/15/us/pge-falsifying-records/ind...
So PG&E showed tidy profits by ignoring their infrastructure and doing it so completely that their people on the street simply lied about maintaining things because no one cared... until stuff began to systematically began to blow up and burn down: https://www.abc10.com/article/news/investigations/the-histor...
The problem is one of accountability. PG&E execs roll from court case to court case but face no risk of personal jail time for decisions that have caused tens to hundreds of preventable deaths: https://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-pge-c...
So the courts get more and more frustrated, fining PG&E larger and larger amounts. But the utility never actually fix their known problems, they simply pass the bill back to their customers, declare bankruptcy and, at this point, turn off the power preemptively as some sort of power move to try to force government compliance.
Building codes apparently changed about a decade ago and are helping the situation, but most of our housing stock is much older. Anyhow there are signs of some political movement on the subject, such as funding for retrofitting. I'm hopeful that pick up.
California hasn't woken up yet so you've got Europe and the east coast who are mostly impartial observers looking at it and going "yup, while probably not ideal this is not an unreasonable outcome considering the situation."
It's much cheaper than PG&E, more reliable, and as far as I know has not started any fires.
The problem with solar is if you're going to play utility, you need batteries. The cost of the panels, installation, batteries, and maintenance add up to enough that if it were cost-effective, utilities would build out more solar. The economies of scale make it cheaper for utilities to manage.
You can sell excess power to the utility, but don't expect that to last in its current form. When 95% of customers use at least 10 kWh per day, you can bill for use and ignore the connection fee. When 50% of customers net-use almost zero, the utility still has to maintain the connection and the network, so expect either connection fee or wholesale producer prices. Net metering doesn't scale.
Now, if you're in a remote area or one prone to wildfires, solar might actually be cheaper, and PG&E might look more like Solar City for those communities.
I am very dismayed with the recent tendency in America for administrators of institutions to just give up when the slightest obstacle is put in their path.
The current news now is classes will be held unless the power actually does go out.
Cancelling every single class without even trying just says that what the university is doing isn't important. It begins to look like the only thing that matters is providing the appearance of an education. If things get a little difficult, as long as someone else can be blamed, no harm done by skipping some material, you weren't going to use it in real life anyhow.
My father (RIP) has been in Venice twice. Once, he was healthy, and he even shot a picture (before my time, back in early 70s) which won a price (he had his own dark room where he produced the picture as well).
The second time he was in Venice, he was with his family (I was ~10). He was sitting in a wheelchair, was legally blind, physically weak, had MS, ... I have no idea how Venice is these days but back than (90s) it was not wheelchair-friendly as there where bridges with stairs everywhere. I will never forget how two man carried him, in his wheelchair, over every bridge. And there was a lot of them! Because of that we were able to do some sight-seeing as a family, and were able to see Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco. We also managed to get him (on our own risk) into a gondola, reliving his first experience in Venice (the picture he won a price with was of a gondolier).
As for your post, I'd like to agree (dislike defeatist approach), but we depend more and more on the Internet these days. Without power, no Internet. I don't know exactly how UC depends on it. What I'd prefer, though, is trying to work around it, but apparently for one reason or another UC did not want to, and I am curious why not. It turns out their defeatist approach was wrong anyway.
A few years ago the power was out here for multiple hours, and I was happy to have my e-reader charged. I also sometimes have something similar with battery devices plus thunderstorm (I tend to disconnect my laptops and smartphones during thunderstorm).
And if one of them suffers an injury, then the school gets sued for millions. Healthcare costs a lot, and everyone will take the opportunity to recoup costs from whomever they can find liable.
- Safety is an issue (stairwell lighting, etc.) especially in buildings with research labs (ventilation and such). Police will kick you out. And you can't even go back in immediately after power comes back on; you have to let the air get cleaned out and such.
- Many courses have exams around this time. This means that the ones that are usually taken concurrently actually coordinate their exam times and such with each other, not just for room allocation (which is its own issue) but also to avoid (say) having simultaneous exams, or to avoid (when possible) having long back-to-back exams for a ton of students. If a random set of classes try to keep their times and a random set postpone and a random set skip... I can imagine it'd be even more of a logistical mess than I'm sure it already is.
- Fairness can be a concern more than it may have been in the past. For example, if some students have power at home and can study, whereas some students can't, that's going to bias the test scores. This may seem insignificant, but for an impacted major like CS where getting a poor exam score can mean you might not even get into the major due to not meeting the GPA cutoff, it's a bigger concern than it might be for others.z
- I'm not sure they could've just gotten "a few strong guys" together just like that. They didn't exactly have much advance notice about the outages.
- Classes are huge, and rooms are not exactly plentiful. Large lecture halls don't get much natural lighting (if any), and a lot of smaller rooms are also indoors without lighting. You'd have to figure out which rooms are still well-lit, and coordinate and reallocate rooms for everybody that still wants to hold class university-wide, on very short notice. That sounds almost impractically hard in a lot of cases, at least to me. (I suppose if they had software and data prepared precisely for this particular purpose, it might kind of work? but this hasn't really been a common occurrence.)
- I'm confused how you think they could "livestream the lecture" during a power outage?
- Lots more practical issues that I haven't thought of or listed... and this doesn't include some of the things other people mentioned (legal/liability etc.) which are probably sufficient on their own to justify some of this.
Now I'm sure there's a fair bit of inefficiency in the system, and perhaps some small classes could've still been held just fine, perhaps improvising in some ways like what you mention, but with the short notice they had, I don't think they had a lot of options here, and for lots of students the outcome would've likely been the same anyway. Had they had more advanced notice and time to prepare, they might've probably done better, and hired some "strong guys" to help out, and gotten powerful flashlights and such... I don't know.
If you're a college professor or student and can't figure out how to hold class without electricity...
Not to mention that a majority of classrooms on campus would be rendered unusable by the lack of lighting (the largest lecture halls have no windows or natural light to speak of) and ventilation.
It’s much cheaper to just shut it down. That is the state of US society. If you’re a leader, first, you think about how you open yourself up to being sued, then you make sure you have plausible deniability (I warned them, told them not to, they acknowledged, it was contracted out to XYZ entity, etc), then you proceed with solving the problem.
But everyone has been running around preparing for the outage that we were assured would come. They’ve now pushed back the outage to midnight, but I have no idea whether that will actually happen.
And of course, their website has been down pretty much the entire day, and the phone lines are clogged. At the very least, they should have made sure the website could handle the load. They’ve been talking about the possibility of this shutdown for months, so there’s no excuse for the website being completely unprepared.
California population is 40 million folks.
It's trivial to have a single dedicated webserver handle 10k requests per second as a starting point.
That means that it'll take 4000 seconds to handle everyone's requests in aggregate, should they be made at the very same time — that's just a little over an hour.
Of course, folks won't make requests at exactly same time, and we aren't limited to a single server, either, and each server is actually capable of handling way more than 10k req/sec in the first place, after some optimisation.
E.g., for 50 bucks a month, anyone can easily run a service where, on average, every single resident of California can get info from a webpage about the current status once every hour without any delay. Simple round-robin DNS, and for 500 bucks per month, we can handle 10 requests per hour from every single resident. Etc. (Keep in mind that a brief search indicates a single server is actually capable of handling 500k req/sec, not just 10k, so, I'm being very conservative here with the 10k number.)
Yet all these companies spends millions of dollars on their IT infrastructure and teams, procure all sorts of external CDNs, and yet cannot make their website perform to these most basic specs.
Why? Alas, that's because they gotta have all those fancy graphics, the tracking for user experience, and all the dynamically-generated and uncacheable webpages that costs millions of dollars to maintain and which can't withstand these most basic loads.
The driver of the outages is indeed what PG&E claims, but it's not necessarily in your area. Your city may be affected simply because they need to de-energize transmission lines (that run through a high-risk area) that serve your city.
- Food waste from freezers and refrigerators
- Candle use increasing risk of fires
- Generators being purchased that will largely end up collecting dust or being returned
- Loss of business at local stores/restaurants/bars/etc
Fire resources getting needlessly tied up plus a ton of hastily-connected generators seems like a recipe for a problem.
Side note, I lost track of how many times I had to explain to people why their giant solar arrays wouldn't be able to power their facility when the grid is down.
Is there an actual size of solar array that could power their facility?
Newer inverters also use a type of communication over the power line where the utility can among other things tell the system to curtail export power if there's too much of a surplus on the grid.
Even in the daytime, without grid access you need storage because the power produced does not rise and fall with your load. Turn on the microwave and the clothes dryer, and instantaneous load may exceed what the panels are producing right now. A cloud going by reduces generation, possibly below current load.
Otherwise, facing potentially billions in liabilities, it just doesn't make economic sense _for the utility_ to provide power to high risk areas during high risk weather.
They didn't happen before because trees were kept cut back. They were not cut back because PGE management chose not to spend the money cutting them back as they had been for decades before.
There was no "high-risk" weather throughout almost all of the area where power was cut. This cut was purely a stunt to get free insurance against deliberate negligent behavior.
my dad's dialysis clinic found out about the power shutoff the same way we did. the news.
the plan is to go to the local hospitals/ERs for dialysis because the clinic isn't equipped to handle anything beyond a short outage right now. except, well, that's everyone's plan. during the start of cold and flu season. excellent to send a bunch of medically fragile people to the same place. and the hospital is not equipped to deal with regular repeat dialysis needs either...?
and this is only dialysis - can't even begin to express the fury on behalf of people who won't even be able to leave their homes - think power chairs and hospital beds and elevators that run out of power in the multi-day-outage scenario...
EBT terminals shutting down — that caused a riot in New England a couple of years ago.
Also, what if a fire still happens, and people don’t know because the power is out?
Good pount! If a tree falls in the forest, will it make any noise?
Anyway, my generator is ready to go so that the freezer doesn’t thaw. Otherwise so far it has been a non-event.
2. State releases them from their liabilities, gets nothing but debt and lawsuits out of the deal, effectively insures the shareholders bad management.
3. State refuses to release them from liability, shareholders take a haircut or perhaps worst case are destroyed, and state is caught holding a large amount of the liability anyway in the ensuing bankruptcy.
The state should not be blackmailed. Option 1 has the least moral hazard and there's an option for the state to spin it off as a private company later, and California citizens profit.
When utilities bring their rate cases to the CPUC, they're factoring in the liabilities they face. If now you're one fire away from the State of California ruining you, their going to argue they need higher return on investment, higher rates, higher revenues to accommodate infrastructure, and they're going to be right. Policy people aren't going to swallow that sitting down because it's political poison, they burn the state down so you grant them rate increases.
No matter whose hands their in, most of the risk is going to be borne by the ratepayers. Public or private, short of redesigning the entire grid, that risk doesn't go away.
I fully expect PG&E to be bailed out yet again. At the end of the day, repairs need to be made, and it's hard to do that when you're bankrupt. But there need to be consequences. I worry about CA's ability to manage PG&E directly, but maybe it's time. At the very least, a power company should not be a profit-seeking corporation. It should not be paying out dividends. Every penny (minus some cash set aside for a rainy-day fund) it brings in should be reinvested in the grid, immediately.
I see other utilities being freaked out by this to be a good thing. Act in the public interest, or we will take over your operations. You serve at the pleasure of the public, not your shareholders.
The state is blessed with the ability to push water uphill via the taxbase coffers, if no reasonable rate is viable.
I think a reasonable way to handle this would be to assign liability for fires according to the cost of handling a typical fire, not the specific fire. It shouldn't matter whether effectively the same negligent act causes a small brush fire that causes no damage and goes out by itself or a monster wildfire. The difference between those two outcomes has nothing to do with the negligent actions and everything to do with the surrounding conditions.
Of course, there are people that don’t want PG&E to trim their trees, hopefully those folks have got religion now.
The Santa Rosa fire was absolutely started by PG&E equipment and deferred brush clearing.
But we're scapegoating PG&E for global warming. CA is a tinderbox compared to 20 years ago. Utilities are always behind on brush clearing everywhere. It's only now it's creating megafires. It's not environmentalists either. It's the average summer being 3-4 degrees F hotter than average and increasing.
It is negligence. Brush and tree clearance are not harder than 50 years ago. There was no sudden surge of trees and brush to cut. They just chose not to do it.
Also, wasn't 2017 the hottest summer ever in California at the time, although I think 2018 broke that record, and I think it's on track to break the record again in 2019?
It's one thing to criticize the utility for a rare failure when they engaged in reasonable maintenance and quite another when the failure was due to poor maintenance hidden behind falsified records.
This is just the consequence of suing PG&E for fires.
For one, its last dividend was paid in September 2017 before concerns about wildfires. Its dividend yield in 2017 was around 3.2%, and its profit was $1.6B. 3.2% isn't getting rich, and people don't buy utilities to get rich, but they expect dividends for their troubles, and the dividend kept up with inflation.
In hindsight, would it have been better to try to prevent wildfires? Yes, but it wasn't clear this was an issue, so in the absence of that, utilities pay out their profits to shareholders.
Its profit margin in 2017 was almost 10% (high than you'd expect for a utility), but if you look at earlier years, its all over the map, and its revenue isn't growing.
> Cal Fire blames PG&E for Butte Fire, will seek $90 million
> A Cal Fire investigation has found Pacific Gas and Electric Co. responsible for the 2015 Butte Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in state history.
Also found this (July 2016):
> Pacific Gas & Electric Company has signed a multi-million dollar contract...to remove about 160,000 dead trees that were cut down to protect power lines on private property in 10 Central California counties.
There wasn't tons of outrage--op-eds saying this is a disaster waiting to happen--and they probably saw "most destructive wildfires in state history" and $90M and decided it was manageable. They were also probably still focusing on preventing the next San Bruno pipeline explosion and less worried about wildfires. It's too easy to look back with a hindsight bias and say "of course they should have done more."
Not only was PG&E found liable due to poor maintenance, they have gone bankrupt as a result.
Then there was the time PG&E didn't maintain their gas pipelines and one exploded an entire block of houses, killing 8 people:
Or you could google for "PG&E maintenance" and click the first link that isn't on PG&E's website:
3.2% might not be much, but $50M can pay to trim a good amount of trees around power lines. And where did that other $1.55B of profit go? Obviously not to tree-trimming.
(I'd go further and suggest that something as fundamental and critical as a power company shouldn't even be a profit-seeking corporation.)
California government seems to be more dysfunctional than government in many other places. TVA may not be a valid data point.
Build the infrastructure in a manner which is impervious to high winds.
Glad I don't live in CA, because it sounds like the electricity is more expensive yet less reliable.
I guess this happens because they are legally at fault for causing fires. I'm not sure that's sane, unless they can be proven to be grossly negligent, like if they allowed lines to sag right above the ground.
This seems more like a stunt to convince the state to release them from some liability.
The Santa Rosa fire started from five+ places where wires swung and arced and set surrounding branches on fire. They just sent a crew out to each one. If after the fifth incident, they had cut power for just a few hours, there would have been no conflagration. If they had cut back the branches so they did not surround the wires, as they are expected to do and used to do, there would have been no conflagration.
This is PGE very clearly demanding that the state act to free them from their responsibilities. If the state does, PGE thould also be freed from any responsibility to return a profit to shareholders, or to pay salaries to existing executives.
It was a stunt.
anytime there is a fire hazard