The states 2019 fire season was relatively mild, but included nine public safety power shutoffs. Is it making the system safer?
In 2019, millions of Californians experienced a wildfire safety blackout, some for nearly a week at a time, as the troubled utility company Pacific Gas & Electric and other investor-owned utilities grappled with replacing one devastating disaster with another, comparatively manageable one.
2019 was not an anomaly, but the beginning of a new way of life for many California residents. While de-energization for fire safety has been state policy for more than a decade, it had never before been used on such a mass scale. According to utility experts, politicians and PG&E, customers can expect many more years of blackouts to come, as fire risk in Californias hills only increases.
Wildfire blackouts could be Californias new normal for the next 10 to 30 years, or even longer, the Senate energy committee chair, Lisa Murkowski, told a hearing on utility and fire safety in December.
Ten or more years of blackouts ahead
In stark contrast to recent years past, Californias 2019 wildfire season was relatively mild: just 732 structures destroyed, compared with the tens of thousands and dozens killed in 2017 and 2018.
The crisis of 2019s fire season was less the fires themselves, and more the actions taken that were meant to prevent fires from igniting in the first place. Intended as a measure of last resort, California power utilities conducted nine public safety power shutoffs in the fall of 2019 in an effort to reduce wildfire risk in hot, windy weather conditions and to reduce liability costs to utilities.
Those costs following deadly wildfires in 2017 and 2018 fires linked to equipment belonging to PG&E, drove the company to file for bankruptcy in 2019, and to reconsider how to manage the grid during future fire weather events.
Bill Johnson, PG&Es CEO, has at different times claimed his utility the largest in the state would resort to blackouts for the next three, five or 10 years.
The southern California investor-owned utility San Diego Gas and Electric is the poster child for safety, said Michael Wara, the director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanfords Woods Institute for the Environment. SDG&E has been de-energizing its lines during fire weather events for more than a decade.
Why is it that PG&E thinks its going to be able to replicate what San Diegos done and do even better over a larger area in less time? Its not impossible, but its an enormously challenging task, said Wara.
PG&Es post-de-energization reports to the state utilities commission showed a number of hazards after each event, from damaged lines and conductors to fallen trees. After its largest shutoff at the end of October, the utility noted more than 100 individual hazards.
Would every piece of system damage that they noted have caused a fire? Probably not. But some of them probably would have, said Wara. [Public safety power shutoff policy] is so unpopular, and it impacts so many people, I worry we will be pushed to be overly optimistic about other potential avenues for creating safety.
Despite the widespread shutoffs, PG&E equipment was still tied to igniting several fires in the fall of 2019, including the Kincade fire in Sonoma county, which destroyed 352 structures and burned more than 77,000 acres.
Its not clear to me that the system is that much safer than 2017, Wara said. The safety that we had this season and the absence of fires during these dangerous wind events was due to the fact that the wires werent hot.