California Focus: Energy customers face ‘blackout blackmail’
Hotel, restaurant and farm losses have not yet been totted up, but probably measure in the millions of dollars. Grocery stores lost tons of frozen goods that spoiled. Some areas went without water. Patients with home dialysis machines, oxygen tanks and other equipment saw their lives endangered.
These were just some consequences when California’s largest utility began what might be the state’s newest form of “blackout blackmail.” They came as Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in mid-October shut down power supplies to 59,000 business and residential customers across a wide swath of Northern California when weather and humidity created dry conditions the utility deemed likely to further the spread of wildfires.
PG&E later also inconvenienced other customers in the name of fire prevention, but oddly enough did nothing near Paradise in Butte County, which was destroyed by the Camp Fire.
The shutdown tactic is something PG&E wishes it had used in 2017, when huge fires swept through the Wine County and other large areas. And when more fires struck near Lakeport and other forested areas last fall.
The state’s other big privately-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, say they will employ the same tactic whenever they feel it is necessary. Like PG&E, they have been severely burned financially by raging wildfires.
But to some affected customers, who saw winds during the October closure episode reach speeds no higher than 7 mph (during big fires, winds usually are many times higher), this looked more like revenge than fire prevention.
“This is blatant terrorism,” complained a reader near Nevada City whose power was cut off by PG&E for more than a day at a time while conditions were dry, but winds low. “Their latest performance shows just how militant (PG&E) can be at the expense of the public.”
Maybe he’s right and this is a form of blackmail. Until October, “blackout blackmail” was been largely confined to Southern California, where Sempra Energy and its Southern California Gas Co. subsidiary repeatedly used threats of summertime blackouts to convince authorities they should allow it to reopen the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. An estimated 97,000 tons of methane gas escaped into the atmosphere from Aliso Canyon, just above the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, over four months in 2015-16, and local residents remain unconvinced the causes of that leak have been fixed.
The possible blackmail by PG&E looked different to its customers. Several readers speculated that the utility’s real message was that if some customers sue it for billions of dollars over damages CalFire says were caused by PG&E equipment and maintenance, many other customers will be made to suffer.
A $10 million lobbying campaign by the utility last summer caused state legislators and former Gov. Jerry Brown to pass a new law giving the corporate-friendly state Public Utilities Commission the ability to dun all customers when a utility is found to have caused major fire damage. The PUC also will have customers pay for tree cutting and other fire prevention tactics now being carried out by utilities fearing a new onslaught of fire-damage lawsuits. Never mind that the companies’ long-term negligence caused many of the dangerous conditions they are now abating.
The reasoning behind the new law was much the same as the justification for the Wall Street bailout that rescued large investment houses following their misdeeds in the Great Recession of 2008-10. The companies, elected officials essentially said, are too big to fail.
They also now have carte blanche to cut off power for awhile to any area they like. For the PUC has set no standards governing when utilities should cut off power in potential fire areas. In October, conditions were dry and humidity low, but the winds needed for wildfires to spread never materialized. CalFire itself only asks utilities to cut off power when a fire is actually burning.
What’s clearly needed are rules for the big electric companies to follow, both in maintaining their equipment and in cutting off power to prevent fires. Without rules, the utilities can do whatever they like. Past history shows they can’t be trusted when given that kind of freedom.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.