Power going out for Northern California again, thanks PG&E

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/11/20/power-going-out-for-northern-c.html


If Californians are angry about PG&E’s mismanagement and CYA policies now, wait until the company turns off the power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses over Thanksgiving.

This is yet another indicator that the effects of climate change are already upon us, much sooner than anyone was told to expect.


What is wrong with the current infrastructure? What needs to be different to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires? How significant is the cost of retrofitting?


Has goal to make more power from wind, but has to turn off grid when too windy.

State acts like an abusive partner putting folks in a double bind.


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It’s a very long and dry (please forgive the pun) explainer, but the bottom line is that California screwed itself with utility regulation laws in the early 2000’s, Enron and companies like Enron made billions disappear with artificially inflated energy costs, and the resulting bankruptcy and emergence left PG&E strapped. They cut back on upgrading the (already far outdated) equipment, maintenance, and yeah, properly cutting back trees from power lines.

PG&E then got sued for causing catastrophic wildfires in 2017 and 2018, and lost, so the company (and by extension via the investor-owned structure of PG&E, most of the electricity users in CA) owed billions. They filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019, and are working on a plan to get out from under it.

There’s no money, that’s the problem. The earlier bankruptcy sucked up most of the wiggle room, and made the bond rating for the company crap. Can’t borrow it.

The law in CA that sets the energy rates means they can’t jack the prices to recoup the loses and build new infrastructure. Can’t print it.

The new round of costly lawsuits means that PG&E must stay within their bankruptcy structure, so you can’t have negative monies (credit) and you can’t incur further costs (no more lawsuits).

So the only option left is to pull the plug when things look iffy, electricity-wise.


From someone who lives in Northern California… This is a man-made problem, and I’m not talking about Climate Change. For more than a decade PG&E did absolutely nothing to solidify their grid infrastructure. But they had $70million to invest a few years ago in an effort to beat a California ballot proposition that would have allowed cities to establish their own utilities. So now, because the company has done crap to repair/enforce the grids, they now remove themselves from all responsibility by simply turning off the power. And yet – and yet! – they have turned the power back on after inspecting the lines this past shut-off and one on their lines still sparked one of the Southern California fires. One of the most incompetently run companies in the state. This is because the company is public, has stock holders, and $$ and the bottom line are more important than the safety of the state.


Well I meant from a technical point of view…How exactly does the transmission infrastructure need to be different than it is now?


Whenever the PG&E CEO uses the words “public safety,” I substitute the words “liability avoidance.”


I think we have the same PR bullshit filter


It’s true but since people have been injured and killed from allegedly (maybe proven, I don’t know) utility started fires isn’t it the same thing?

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This is probably the most important point. There’s a lot of miles of transmission lines going through wooded areas. A tree brushes, or worse, falls on a line and woosh, you’ve got a fire. Just inspecting all those lines is millions of dollars.
Australia had similar problems with fires not too many years ago. The country implemented a lot of new requirements that were definitely expensive, but made the power grid much more reliable. Heavy among these was vegetation management (industry jargon for cutting trees back)
This is a recent article, but covers how Australia manages wild fire risk now, highlighting some changes made, if you can get past the alphabet soup.

-I work in the power industry, and my company is a supplier for PG&E


and why is Mr.Popo involved?

[Apologies in advance for the long post, but the answers are complex.]

Transmission lines hang from insulators on tall towers. The more electricity you put through a metal wire, the hotter the wire gets. Metal expands due to heat, which means the hotter the wire gets, the more it lengthens. The longer the wire, the more it sags between towers. The more it sags, the closer it gets to the trees below it. And the less money you spend cutting the trees below it, the taller the trees get. When sagging wires meet taller-than-designed trees, they cause fires. Hot temperatures, high winds, rain, trees, and extra sag all increase risk.

The engineers who designed the line specified a maximum amount of electricity they could safely carry as long as every tree below them were kept trimmed to a certain height. The utility is supposed to limit the electricity to this amount. But continued development in those areas has meant more consumers, and now there’s higher demand than the line was originally designed to deliver. So they’ve been sending as much electricity as the line can carry, but it’s already at its designed safety limits. And the unmaintained trees have grown taller, reducing those thin safety margins to essentially zero.

Possible fixes include:

  • Spend money and cut the trees. Slow, temporary, and doesn’t help increase capacity to match current and future demand. But it’s required maintenance that the line owners should be doing regardless.

  • Reduce consumer demand by reducing the number of consumers who get electricity. Quick and cheap, but that leaves some people without power, and here we are.

  • Increase overall capacity by adding more lines to carry the load via different routes. This takes money, time, and endless legal battles over running ugly wires through beautiful lands.

  • Increase peak capacity by adding local natural gas generators to the isolated parts of the grid. Expensive to build, and the NIMBY opposition to generators, fuel trucks, and/or pipelines is high.

  • Reduce consumer demand using smart meters and peak pricing. This is actually an interesting and promising solution to rampant energy consumption in general, but PG&E’s sheer incompetence will prevent them from ever pulling it off.

Smart meters can be configured to charge consumers different rates based on overall grid demand. When demand is low, they can charge a lower rate, like $0.15/kWh. If demand goes high (due to everyone wanting to run their air conditioning on a hot day or whatever), they can raise the prices during the high demand period. They might charge $0.15/kWh overnight, but from 10AM to 4PM they could charge $0.60/kWh and from 4PM to 8PM, raise it to $3.00/kWh.

Consumers would theoretically set up their air conditioners (or other smart electrical devices) to follow budget rules, such as “use no more than $1.00 per hour.” This might mean their A/C runs for only 15 minutes per hour, laundry equipment only runs overnight, or they only charge their cars on days predicted to be under 80°. The possibilities are unlimited.

And a smart meter can run in reverse, too, so if you have a home generator or fully charged electric car battery you might tell it to sell electricity back to the grid whenever the price goes over $2.00/kWh. This would help the utility meet demand peaks without running new transmission lines.

They could create all kinds of exceptions to the rules to provide fixed rates to low income users, low consumption users, businesses who defer electrical consumption to off-peak hours, hospitals or home medical equipment, etc.

But those are the ideal operations of smart meters on a smart grid. What PG&E’s track record promises, however, is that they’ll turn them into a way to jack up prices and profits. They have time and again proven themselves incapable of running a utility responsibly, so when they say “smart meters will help”, precious few people are dumb enough to believe them.


Much of this was already on the table as part of extreme scenarios, though. It was part of the warnings which were issued. So, really, we were told. But climate scientists were also told to downplay the extreme cases or risk losing the audience—which, I note, never much materialized anyway.

And a lot of avoiding those scenarios were dependent upon curtailing CO2 pollution, which we largely did not do.

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