USA – The repeated power shutoffs imposed to avoid sparking wildfires around the state have left many Californians furious and looking for someone — or something — to blame.
Some critics join Gov. Gavin Newsom in pointing to a warming climate that scientists say is increasing the likelihood of wildfires and at PG&E for failing adequately to plan for that increase, while at the same time enriching its executives and shareholders.
Others blame state politicians and regulators for forcing utilities to focus on costly environmental goals at the expense of ensuring that the public has safe and reliable electric power service.
Who’s right? Not surprisingly, given the Democrats’ dominance in state politics over the last decade, the divide tends to be partisan, with Republicans more inclined to blame the state’s elected leaders.
But energy industry experts say there is plenty of accountability to go around.
“It’s an extremely complicated issue and misleading to pin the blame on any particular institution or person,” said Les Guliasi, an independent energy consultant in Berkeley who is president of the Power Association of Northern California, a nonprofit trade organization.
Since the planned blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of customers began earlier this month, Newsom has been relentless in his criticism of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, calling the situation “inexcusable,” “unacceptable” and “the direct result of decades of PG&E prioritizing profit over public safety, mismanagement, inadequate investment in fire safety and fire prevention measures, and neglect of critical infrastructure.”
The governor is no doubt anxious to distance himself from Gov. Gray Davis’ historic recall after the state’s flawed electricity deregulation spawned rolling blackouts nearly two decades ago. And PG&E’s serial safety failures make the utility an unsympathetic target.
PG&E also failed to follow San Diego Gas and Electric Co. as that utility overhauled its electric grid after the deadly 2007 Witch Fire and became a national model of implementing targeted and limited shutoffs to avoid starting more wildfires. PG&E’s president, Bill Johnson, acknowledged the company is playing catch-up and its safety shutoff implementation clumsy.
“It’s too easy to just scapegoat the utility,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow who worked for former Gov. Pete Wilson, governor during the deadly 1991 Oakland Hills fire. “In the nearly 30 years since then, what has the state government done to better prepare the state for wildfires?”
PG&E is overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission, a $1.6 billion agency of 1,000 employees based in San Francisco that regulates privately owned electric, gas, phone and water utilities as well as railroad and passenger transport companies. The CPUC is run by five commissioners appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. It has long been accused of being too close to companies it regulates.
Should the commission have prodded PG&E to upgrade its electric grid like SDG&E?
“There is some real blame to the government side,” said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “I hesitate to blame the CPUC, but they also didn’t see this coming.”
Mike Florio, a consultant and former lawyer for The Utility Reform Network consumer group who served as a commissioner from 2011 through 2016, said in an interview that was a fair critique. While assigned as a commissioner to wildfire safety rule-making around 2013 and 2014, Florio said he raised the question of whether PG&E needed to do a San Diego-style grid overhaul, only to be told at the time it wasn’t needed because the fire risk was lower.
“I said, ‘What about Northern California?’ ” Florio recalled, “and this room full of experts said ‘Oh, it’s completely different in Northern California.’ ”
By the end of Florio’s term — during which he, too, was accused of being too chummy with PG&E — he said new commission research found nearly half the state, encompassing much of the area surrounding the Central Valley, was at elevated fire risk.
“If you want to blame somebody, blame the people who deny climate change,” Florio said. “It’s pretty obviously changing in pretty obvious ways.”
Others are reluctant to heap much fault on the regulators. Borenstein argues the commission isn’t funded or staffed well enough. And James Sweeney, an energy policy expert and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, said PG&E should have taken the lead in pushing regulators to allow higher rates for grid upgrades like its counterpart in San Diego.
“I don’t think you can fault the public utilities commission for not proposing that because that’s not their job, that’s the utility’s job,” Sweeney said. But he added that “in fairness” to PG&E, “the CPUC pushed back hard against SDG&E for doing this. But they persisted and got permission.”
In addition to appointing the utilities’ overseers, California’s legislators — overwhelmingly Democrats for more than a decade — also have pushed the state to be a global leader in the fight against global warming linked to carbon dioxide emissions. A law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown requires half the state’s electricity come from sources such as solar, wind and hydropower that don’t emit the heat-trapping gas by 2026 and all of it by 2045.
Switching from existing gas-fired plants to those alternative energy sources is costly, Sweeney said. That doesn’t mean utilities can’t also recover costs for needed maintenance and safety upgrades.
“You already have high cost because of the environmental protection you’re doing, forcing them to be ahead of the curve in the renewables, and there’s already political pressure and people objecting to high prices,” Sweeney said. “Then if you say ‘OK, we’re going to do a lot more grid hardening and further increase the price,’ there’s a lot more political price to pay.”
“It’s not that you can’t do both,” Sweeney added. “But when prices are already high, you’re hesitant to do things that would further increase prices. It’s an issue of how high do you politically want prices of electricity to be before it gets to be a citizens revolt.”
Sweeney and others also note that state officials have done little to discourage residential expansion into fire-prone areas on the edge of wilderness.
And surrounding states, also affected by global warming, have not been plagued by wildfires and blackouts quite like California.
Experts don’t exempt themselves from blame for California’s electricity and fire woes.
“Did I, having some expertise in electricity, go out and advocate PG&E shutting down during wind storms?” Sweeney asked rhetorically.
Any solution, nearly everyone agrees, is going to involve balancing various risks — wildfires, blackouts, a warming climate — with the costs of measures to reduce them. It is likely to be politically tricky, and it almost certainly will not please everyone.
“California is a two-minded state,” Whalen said. “Locals are complaining about lines coming down and starting fires, and locals are complaining about their power being turned off.”
Added Guliasi: “There’s blame to go around to everybody.”