California prides itself on being a global leader on climate change, but last week’s unprecedented power outages have raised questions about how progressive environmental practices contributed to putting two million residents in the dark.
The lights were back on Monday in Northern California even as Pacific Gas & Electric acknowledged that more power outages are likely to avoid sparking the disastrous wildfires that torched the state in 2017 and 2018, a stunning turn of events in the world’s fifth-largest economy.
“What’s the most important commodity in the world? It’s electricity,” said Max Fuentes, a utility consultant in Sacramento. “Without it, you’re a Third World country. Well, right now, California is starting to act like a Third World country.”
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom heaped blame for the rolling blackouts on PG&E, the beleaguered electrical utility that filed for bankruptcy in January, citing its failure to maintain and improve transmission lines on its 70,000-mile service area.
“This is not from my perspective a climate change story as much as it is a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades,” Mr. Newsom said at a Thursday press conference. “[It’s about] neglect, and a desire to protect not public safety but profits.”
PG&E faces as much as $30 billion in legal claims after its lines were found to have ignited 2017 and 2018 wildfires, including the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history, but critics like Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said that focusing on the utility doesn’t tell the whole story.
PG&E lines may have provided the spark, but decades of mismanagement on state and federal forests left millions of dead and dying trees ready to erupt, thanks in part to environmental policies and legal challenges aimed at curtailing tree-cutting.
“[W]e need to recognize that bad public policies are contributing to a bad decision,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, who disagreed with the decision to deenergize the power lines.
He cited California’s strict-liability law holding utilities responsible for wildfires caused by their equipment, even if no negligence or fault is involved. The state’s wildfire commission has proposed scaling back the law, although such a change is seen as politically untenable.
“Until the state government changes laws that currently hold utilities strictly liable for circumstances beyond their control, and until the state and federal governments change the laws that have made active public lands management all but impossible, we will continue to face these perils every windy day into the future, and that is unacceptable,” said Mr. McClintock in a statement.
The Republican Party of California lashed out at Democrats, who control state government, accusing them of failing to prioritize public safety.
“Legislative Democrats have failed our state, our resources and our people by not properly taking preventative measures to avoid these annual atrocities,” said the party in a statement.
What California Democrats have done is prioritize climate change, setting a goal of 50% of electricity consumption to be provided by renewable energy by 2030.
PG&E’s reorganization plan would allow it to honor its $42 billion in power-purchase agreements for renewable energy sources, “under pressure from state lawmakers and regulators worried that breaking them could undermine the state’s renewable energy goals,” as reported by Green Tech Media.
At the same time, PG&E has fallen short on its grid-maintenance goals, completing only 30% of tree-trimming on its 2,455 miles of power lines and removing only about 40% of dead and dying trees, according to figures from the Wall Street Journal, thanks in part to a “lack of qualified tree workers.”
One reason: The decline of the Pacific Northwest timber industry, driven by falling lumber prices and the 1990 Northern spotted owl decision. The forests have also become overgrown, making it easier for bark beetles and flames to spread.
“They pass state laws and federal laws making it impossible to do logging,” said H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the free-market Heartland Institute. “They say you can’t cut down these trees, even if they’re dead, which means you’re creating more and more fuel. They’ve got forests there that historically may have had 300 trees per acre that now have 900 trees per acre.”
‘Climate change is coming’
Climate activists argue that the focus on tree-counts is meaningless without reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, which they blame for driving the 2011-17 drought that left the forests tinder-dry and vulnerable to fire.
“California’s massive power outages show climate change is coming for everyone, even the rich,” said the Saturday headline on Quartz.
“The move exposes how brittle our systems are in the face of the climate crisis, which is making conditions that are ripe for large fires worse,” said Gizmodo’s Brian Kahn. “It also raises questions about how private companies handling public services are preparing for the coming onslaught of climate-fueled disasters.”
Climate Depot’s Marc Morano disagreed, arguing that climate change “cannot be blamed for California’s electricity woes, despite claims to the contrary.”
“The main culprit in California’s new blackout economy is mismanagement of water, forests and electrical lines,” he said. “If California had been more proactive in scaling back tree and brush growth near electrical lines, mass-scale electrical blackouts would not be necessary.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said that the California blackouts illustrate the need for renewable power sources.
“Think of the alternative to these power outages and intense wildfires if America tackles climate change,” tweeted Mr. Sanders. “We can build a smart, safe, and modern electrical grid that gives every American access to clean, cheap, and reliable energy from renewables.”
Unless that power is provided exclusively by rooftop solar tiles, however, transmission lines will be part of the equation.
“California greens will inevitably argue for more solar and wind power to ‘save’ the state,” Mr. Morano said. “But they will not mention that mandating more solar and wind power will require many additional new power lines to transmit the energy.”
PG&E CEO Bill Johnson apologized last week for the blackouts and related technical issues, saying the company was given a choice between “hardship on everyone or safety, and we chose safety.”
For Californians, the bottom line is that it may be too early to mothball their diesel-powered back-up generators. Another major electricity provider, Southern California Edison, shut off power Thursday to 13,000 customers in response to high winds.
“[G]iven the risk to public safety, the desire to have zero spark, we will very likely have to make this decision again in the future,” Mr. Johnson said.