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PG&E Outage Darkens Northern California Amid Wildfire Threat (nytimes.com)
121 points by Metacelsus 5 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments





The Camp fire was legally PG&E's fault, and you can blame them for not maintaining their equipment and starting a fire, but you can't blame them for the magnitude of the fire. The Camp fire was so huge because:

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...


I was so amazed when I learned that many Western coniferous trees adapted to drop their lower limbs as they grow and only keep the trunk free of extra kindling near the ground, so they can survive brush fires easily. That's one of the reasons that visibility is so nice out west in the woods! Not as many branches close to the ground where you're walking.

While PG&E is definitely at fault here, I feel California deserves this type of treatment. With the extremely stringent regulations which place PG&E at risk for massive fines/penalty for wildfires even if they take all possible precautions, this is the logical outcome of a company trying to stay afloat.

> With the extremely stringent regulations which place PG&E at risk for massive fines/penalty for wildfires even if they take all possible precautions, this is the logical outcome of a company trying to stay afloat.

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.


Sorry, if it's not PG&E it will be some guy with a cigarette, drunk campers, or lightning.

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.


Droughts are nothing new to California. The worst droughts were in the 30s, 70s and 80s: https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-california-re...

But also, there's fossil evidence of 200 year droughts in California: https://www.mercurynews.com/2014/01/25/california-drought-pa...


Or a pyromaniac who flies here from Missouri :(

https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2019/09/26/freddie-graham-mi...


Is it though? That area is naturally a bundle of kindling. It's part of the lifecycle to burn, flourish, then burn again.

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!


Yeah, but that guy doesn't have the liability (judgement proof)

Blaming climate change as the root cause of these fires is to completely ignore the fundamental nature of California.

I don't know why you're on here saying nonsense, but PG&E's behavior before the fires is as far as you can imagine from "all possible precautions".

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 [1], 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 [2]. Had they not twice burned down swaths of California, along with blowing up the odd city, they would be a nicely profitable company today.

[1] https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2011/01/21/federal-investigator...

[2] https://m.sfgate.com/business/article/PG-E-profit-rises-to-5...


> 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.


It's tempting to believe that you can optimize the system by removing the profit cut, but the world (including here in the US) has a lot of experience with public utilities and this doesn't appear to be the case. You can end up with a publicly owned utility that underinvests, gets lax about safety, and takes "easy" solutions instead of hard ones... but also doesn't have any incentive to cut costs, so power ends up being more expensive than it would even with the profit cut.

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.


> They should not be paying out dividends to investors

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.


Public companies can take out bonds, no? That's private money, but doesn't have the same dangerous incentives of dividends.

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.


> 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.

States would have less problem with that if they weren't bearing the costs of for-profit power.


This isn't free market. PG&E is a gun backed government monopoly. If the free market was in play this wouldn't be an issue.

> If the free market was in play this wouldn't be an issue.

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.


Are you kidding? Try taking a taxi in a city with a monopoly given to one company. I much prefer freelancers like Uber drivers. You use fear to justify violence.

> I much prefer freelancers like Uber drivers.

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.


Cheap electricity and convenient transportation for yourself at the cost of everyone else's health, well being and future is something a free market could offer and I'm not sure why you think I denied that.

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..


I think what you don't get is that in a state the size of California, ancient and faulty equipments is part of the course. Not everything can be sparkling new w/o incurring massive costs. Also, even then California regulations will fault PG&E for any fire they may have caused despite them taking all possible precautions (including replacing old equipments).

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.


Again, nonsense. We can maintain things. PG&E has been ruled not at fault for eg Tubbs.

The ease of ignition for wildfires in California really cannot be overstated.

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:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/us/california-wildfires-h...


> b) People like to live near or in the woods, like they can in other states, so they lobby the government to suppress fires

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...


Ok, not sure what you mean by constructive criticism -- I didn't make these laws, I'm just trying to describe the incentives and dynamics. It's very pleasant to live in the woods, and in many places, this is relatively safe because downfall wood rots. It's not safe in California. The Native Americans knew this and didn't live in the woods. You can either say that people have to accept that their house will burn down periodically or prevent them from building it there. Unfortunately it is very difficult politically to tell someone that their house needs to burn even if they theoretically agreed to that at some point in the past.

What about mandating a 1km fire safety zones?

The few states in US that have a recommendation on that put safety zones of just 150m or less


Depending on the characteristics of specific fires and locations, that might be too much, not enough, or simply the wrong tactic.

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.


Why 1km?

Quite sane norm, given that firestorm can leap 500 metres and give instant radiation burns at a substantial distance too. Poisoning is also a big threat.

Look at norms in other countries with hot and dry woodlands


For those looking for their motivations, here it is (recall PG&E filed chapter 11 to navigate liability payments):

"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.

https://www.barrons.com/articles/pg-e-stock-slumps-after-jud...


You can't have 99.99% reliable power, cheap power, transmission through tinerboxes, and hold the utility liable for fires.

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.


I'm surprised to see so much unconsidered support for PG&E here.

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.


The thing that bugs me is that as much as we can blame PGE, we also have done an excellent job building flammable houses surrounded by flammable landscaping which makes it very easy for wildfire ashes to collect in nooks and shrubbery and ignite houses from there. That's not PG&E's fault.

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.

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.denverpost.com/2019/04/11/c...


>I'm surprised to see so much unconsidered support for PG&E here.

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."


yes, though I actually do think it is about as ideal as it can get. The reason Enron didn't change the discussion about privatization into how to undo it is that the US wants privatization to remain legitimate so it can force it on other nations via the IMF and extract wealth like a bad pay day loan company. Companies being afraid to deal with privatization, courts destroying companies for doing it wrong, etc are all gettig the precedent necessary give developing nations options to protect themselves from exploitation that largely originates from California.

I'm in a city that's not served by PG&E, it's Silicon Valley Power.

It's much cheaper than PG&E, more reliable, and as far as I know has not started any fires.


SVP has 55 miles of transmission lines. PG&E has 18,466.

Also SVP ties into PG&E's grid to buy the ~65% of demand that isn't satisfied by local production.

... and I'd wager that very few of those 55 miles runs through fantastically dry forests that are just waiting for the tiniest push to set them on fire.

Cheap? PG&E?

Well if you want 100% foolproof fire insulation, PG&E would be multiple times what they are today.

We pay some of the highest power rates in the nation. CA isnt the only state with trees.

I realize your comment is not contributing to the discussion, but surely you must know that it's still far cheaper than running your own power plant to generate enough energy to power your home, right?

Playing devil's advocate, someone might point out rooftop solar.

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.


Buying panels is still more expensive than paying an electric company for electricity. It takes many years before you start to get a return on your investment. So I don't think that's really a valid counter argument..

> Meteorologists said the strong winds that were forecast in the hills and canyons on Wednesday resembled those that propelled deadly fires in the wine country of Napa and Sonoma Counties two years ago. The power company, which declared bankruptcy in January in the face of tens of billions of dollars in liabilities from past fires, said it was not taking chances this time.

Makes sense.


Idk, a power company that can not safely power people year round does not make any sense to me. Obviously they want to shift that liability here but I would argue if you can't supply power year round then you have no business turning a profit and as others have said here if it wasn't for the fires they caused they were set to turn a profit. Perhaps that profit came at the expense of proper equipment maintenance? So no a business selling an essential service that makes its shareholders profits makes absolutely no sense when they had money they could of used to fix some of the lines.

That is to be expected with a government supported monopoly. Buckle up.

At UC Berkeley all classes were cancelled today (Wednesday) because PG&E said campus would lose power. Buildings, libraries, computing services all shut down... but power stayed on all day. I'm sure the administration is very upset that all this happened for no reason.

Not very long ago, people would have just improvised solutions to not having power. For classrooms with windows, do a lecture without PowerPoint. For those without, maybe set up some battery powered lighting, open the doors, or just hold the lecture on the lawn.

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.


Yes, there's definitely some truth in what you're saying -- UC Berkeley managed back in 1868 presumably without power, but it's also much bigger and has different facilities now. It's not as simple as just telling 40,000+ students to improvise. Many buildings, especially those with deep basements (like Soda Hall) may have ventilation problems without power. With the number of students here, holding lecture on the lawn or even rearranging to rooms with windows would be complete chaos, assuming that's even possible. To top it all off, elevators might also not function and cause issues for people in wheelchairs, etc.

The current news now is classes will be held unless the power actually does go out.


It's exactly this attitude that I hate. Guy in a wheelchair can't get to class because the elevator is out? Swap rooms with another class on the ground floor or get a few strong guys together and carry 'em up the stairs or have someone hold a phone and livestream the lecture or have someone take notes and give them to him after class.

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.


> It's exactly this attitude that I hate. Guy in a wheelchair can't get to class because the elevator is out? Swap rooms with another class on the ground floor or get a few strong guys together and carry 'em up the stairs or have someone hold a phone and livestream the lecture or have someone take notes and give them to him after class.

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).


> or get a few strong guys together and carry 'em up the stairs

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.


I can give some potential reasons why things are a little more complicated than they might look from the outside, or (I presume) might have looked in earlier decades:

- 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.


You don't have to figure out a solution for 40k people though. Just trust each relatively small group to figure out for themselves.

If you're a college professor or student and can't figure out how to hold class without electricity...


Well, you really do need to figure out a solution for everyone on campus. During the day almost every classroom and lecture hall is occupied by some sort of class or meeting, so the needs of these relatively small groups would inevitably come into conflict. Our intro CS courses also easily number over a thousand students, and while most don't come in person to lectures and are instead encouraged to watch the recorded version online, recording equipment would also be unavailable without power.

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.


You do have to figure out a solution for 40k people though, because if just one of those relatively small group of people does something that hurts someone, then now the school is liable since it didn’t give proper instructions/protocol/training, and enter the lawyers.

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.


It's driven by liability concerns. Somebody falls down the stairs because the lights were off and sues the University.

I wouldn't be surprised if there are disability concerns. Elevators that don't work, no electricity for medical devices, etc.

The communications around this outage have been a complete mess. PG&E claimed the outage was being driven by high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds. My town, near Redwood City, was supposed to lose power today at noon. This was perplexing to us because it was not hot (75 degrees), dry (40+ percent humidity), or windy (6 mph).

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.


The fact that all these corporations with billion-dollar budgets cannot make their websites work I'll never understand.

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 communications around this have indeed been a mess.

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.


I had the same thought. But when the power was turned off in my town last night, the corridor that was affected was not near us. PG&E should have known that (1) the conditions were not even close to what they had thought on the ground, and (2) except for certain transmission corridors in our area, no one would be affected. Instead they caused massive inconvenience and minor panic, with businesses closing and schools spending lots of time planning for unnecessary contingencies.

Doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. And there are second-order effects to consider:

- 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

What else?


I spent eleven hours today hooking up large generators (up to 2MW) for businesses. I'm a controls/PLC guy so it's not what I normally do but this was an all-hands-on-deck situation. Two places had their fire alarms go off as soon as the power was restored (due to issues with fire pump controls too long to get into here) and they weren't able to disable the alarm in time to prevent a fire dispatch.

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.


> 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?


The main reason is that most solar arrays are set up in such a way that they require the grid to operate. If you want to run your array without the grid it's a different type of system and requires additional hardware (transfer switches) to ensure that you don't backfeed power to the grid, creating a safety hazard for people working on the lines. Storage is also a necessity if you're operating off-grid.

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.


Very few solar panel arrays provide power at night. Those that do have energy storage systems attached that were very expensive to add. When the purpose of the array is to save on expense of peak-usage power, storage is not essential and is often omitted.

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.


Sounds like a good reason to indemnify utility providers from fires their systems cause for reasons other than outright negligence...

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.


The fires were caused by outright negligence.

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.


Consider the Tubb's fire that PG&E is being sued over and which triggered their filing for bankrupcy protection: Cal Fire's investigation concluded that the fire was caused by a private electrical system and not PG&E.

https://www.fire.ca.gov/media/5032/tubbscause1v.pdf


anyone with medical needs.

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...


FYI (assuming this is going to be the new normal for a bit) have the clinic check out the State SGIP program for funding to buy battery storage. They just allocated an (extra) $800 million to the program and at least $100 mil was for critical needs (e.g. medical) facilities. https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/california-appr...

Gradma’s oxygen concentrator shutting down. Hopefully those folks preemptively went to urgent care just to hang out in the waiting room.

EBT terminals shutting down — that caused a riot in New England a couple of years ago.


Won’t the number of deaths from power outages outnumber the deaths from fires?

Also, what if a fire still happens, and people don’t know because the power is out?


> 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?


So I’m sitting here in 94087 waiting for the lights to go out, but still have electricity here. Depite PG&E’s robo-caller leaving me a warning twice a day.

Anyway, my generator is ready to go so that the freezer doesn’t thaw. Otherwise so far it has been a non-event.


Unless it's a quirk of power transmission, I'm surprised much of that area would be affected. I was thinking anything west of Foothill would be dicey.

Apparently most of 94087 is good, but my little corner of it seems to share a feed with some of the Cupertino hill country. At least going by the outage maps I have seen.

Ahh. Yeah; all the maps I saw looked like hill country.

1. State takes it over, destroys the shareholders (they've mismanaged the company, so I'm not terribly sympathetic to them)

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.


The problem with 1 and 3 that isn't accounted for is that then you have go on dealing with your other utilities acting like you didn't just eat their neighbor's heart on national television.

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 don't think anyone is arguing that if PG&E needs more funding to actually fix the problem, they shouldn't get it. I think it's fair to be skeptical, though. PG&E had $1.66B in profit in 2017. Why was that money not put toward paying down maintenance debt throughout the year?

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.


Other utilities being terrified is a feature, if it prevents the reckless disregard for public good we've seen at PG&E. Private utilities live by the grace of the public, for the service of the public. Fail the public, get replaced.

The state is blessed with the ability to push water uphill via the taxbase coffers, if no reasonable rate is viable.


IANAL, but ISTM you'd need to suffer through a bit of #3 before judges would let you try #1...

Didn't we already do that, a year ago?

Assigning significant blame to PGE for fires even when their equipment is at fault is stupid. The main factor in every big fire is hot, dry conditions. It doesn't really matter where the initial spark comes from, it's inevitable that big fires will happen in conditions like this.

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.


Um... PG&E was way behind on brush clearing. They still are.

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.


Yes. Nobody, including the person you replied to, is disputing that.

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.


No. I am not scapegoating PG&E for global warming. With proper line maintenance Santa Rosa would not have had 5 separate transformers start fires. The wind was bad enough that they probably would have also had to cut power to not spark any fires. Climate change is a thing, yes, but PG&E dodging necessary expenses is also a thing.

Ok - so then suffer with power cuts. It is wrong to say that PG&E is a likely worse than any other US utility company. And playing safe than sorry is the natural outcome if we are going to blame them every fire.

Ok, so then why not do routine maintenance? Why do you support PG&E ignoring maintenance while taking home profits for decades? Or are you a shill?

California just came out of many years of drought without those fires. The fires happened after an unusually wet year.

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.


Didn't the preceding years of drought kill a bunch of trees, leaving standing fuel?

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?


And that brush and tree maintenance is way cheaper than the cost of lost economic activity these intentional outages will generate. It's a liability waiver shakedown for sure.

The problem isn’t pge, it’s the weather. How does anyone expect pge to never allow a single failure? They used to happen all the time and it didn’t matter because California wasn’t a fucking tinder box. The problem isn’t pge it’s the tinderbox. Take away pge and you will still have fires as was demonstrated today in Moraga where 50 acres burned where there was no power. Take away the tinderbox and you won’t have fires. Everyone hating on pge is nothing short of a mass hallucination.

This would make a lot more sense if the failures of PG&E infrastructure that caused previous fires were not because of negligence.

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.


The point is that the fires aren’t caused by their negligence. They would have happened anyway as you just admitted. But the uproar is blaming them for fires. It’s incorrect.

PG&E literally falsified maintenance records. They are not innocent victims who did what they could to prevent fires.

The SF Chronicle has an updating map of outage locations[0]

[0]https://projects.sfchronicle.com/trackers/power-outages/


I wouldn't be surprised if Tesla got a lot of orders for panels and batteries this week.

I wouldn't be surprised either, but it might not help people all that much. I don't think Tesla's current Powerwall can charge from solar when the grid's down due to the AC link between the solar inverter and the Powerwall only working when connected to the grid.

PG&E will be seized for this.

And then what? Clear space around transmission lines? Bury transmissions lines? Costs money. Keep the power going when it's risky? Fires. Raise rates for all customers, you'll get pretty angry people. Realistically, all you can do is raise rates for people in risky areas to cover the cost of either maintenance or fires.

This is just the consequence of suing PG&E for fires.


PG&E paid $798 million in dividends in 2017 and $925 million in 2016.

That lacks any sort of context.

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.


I think the point is that dividends are a distribution of profits, and they shouldn't be booking profits at all if they are violating regulations and endangering lives by avoiding maintenance expenses.

I looked through old news stories. I found this (April 2016):

https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/fires/article74496267...

> 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.

https://www.sierrastar.com/news/local/article90649657.html

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."


I have no idea how you managed to find that stuff but missed the deadliest wildfire in California history, and when they exploded a neighborhood?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Fire_(2018)

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/15/business/pge-fire.html

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:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Bruno_pipeline_explosion

Or you could google for "PG&E maintenance" and click the first link that isn't on PG&E's website:

https://www.salon.com/2019/10/09/after-choosing-profits-over...


It's not like 2017 was the first year of CA's drought, or even the first year of CA's wildfires. I get that hindsight is 20/20, but trimming trees around power lines isn't exactly a new or controversial thing that power companies should try to keep up on.

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.)


This. PG&E has neglected their first job as a regulated monopoly which is to provide safe power. They are years behind on repairs and clean up needed to lower the fire risk.

We can only hope.

What in CA state government history makes you think they will do a better job managing the electrical grid?

TVA and hundreds of others seem to do just fine

What in CA government history makes you think they will do a better job managing the electrical grid?

California government seems to be more dysfunctional than government in many other places. TVA may not be a valid data point.


The fact that anywhere in the USA has planned blackouts is absolutely unacceptable.

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.


I’d recommend Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow. I no longer believe the impervious system is possible. I do think PG&E needs to be forced to invest more in the infrastructure, but, at the end of the day, these accidents will still happen imo.

So their plan is just to completely turn off the power anytime there is a fire hazard? What if the hazard remains for weeks?

This seems more like a stunt to convince the state to release them from some liability.


I think you hit the nail on the head there. This is basically PG&E C suite folks blackmailing the state.

I.e., "Look what you made us do!"

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 might be a stunt. I still think it is the right thing to do. PG&E has a huge amount of deferred brush clearing to work through. Even if the day after the Santa Rosa fire they had trippled the crew sizes and had been working non-stop they still would not have worked it all down. Those are just the facts on the ground. Cutting power is much better than starting fires.

Almost all of the area cut did not have high winds.

It was a stunt.


It's very possible there are politics at play here, but the NWS forecast sounds like something we won't get every year? Although we had it in 2017 in the North Bay and 2018 in Butte county, so maybe it is going to be common?

https://forecast.weather.gov/product.php?site=MTR&issuedby=M...


This is not a new thing. They’ve cut power several times in the past few years to reduce fire risk.

  anytime there is a fire hazard
Not forever. Just until regulators agree to have ratepayers bail them out.



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