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PG&E’s Solution to Preventing Other Wildfires in California: Cut People’s Power for Days


Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), the largest utility company in the world, plans to cut up to one-eighth of Californians’ power when “dangerously high winds arise” to prevent their “in need of repair” power lines from sparking another wildfire. Power could be out for up to five days, potentially putting communities at risk, particularly, the sick and elderly, and cause financial losses with slim hope of compensation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It wouldn’t be the first time PG&E has decided to cut power, but the unintended consequences of the move were immediately felt.

“In October, in a test run of sorts, PG&E for the first time cut power to several small communities over wildfire concerns, including the small Napa Valley town of Calistoga, for about two days. Emergency officials raced door-to-door to check on elderly residents, some of whom relied on electric medical devices. Grocers dumped spoiling inventory. Hotels lost business,” WSJ reported.

At least one local deeply affected by PG&E’s decision said that the company was “essentially shifting all of the burden, all of the losses onto everyone else.”

Per WSJ:

PG&E is “essentially shifting all of the burden, all of the losses onto everyone else,” said Dylan Feik, who was Calistoga city manager until earlier this month. By shutting off power in fire-prone parts of its service area, which are home to 5.4 million people, PG&E said in regulatory filings it hopes to prevent more deadly wildfires. The San Francisco-based company sought bankruptcy protection in January, citing more than $30 billion in potential damages from fires linked to its equipment.

Apparently, PG&E knew about their faulty power lines for years. In 2013, PG&E workers noticed that one of their lines (the Caribou-Palermo line) sagged considerably and that several trees were encroaching upon it. Work was scheduled to have been completed by February 2016 and cost upwards of $30.3 million, but the project was continuously delayed. Then they were going to start the repair project in 2014. The project never happened. Then they were going to repair the line in 2015. The repairs still didn’t come.

Finally, in 2018, PG&E told federal regulators that their work would begin in June and finish up late in the year. That would-be work also never started and in a matter of months the perpetual putting off would be too late, WSJ previously reported. And on Nov. 8, 2018, “winds picked up before sunrise near Paradise, Calif., when a wire snapped free from the Caribou-Palermo line, creating an electric arc that scorched the metal tower supporting it.” A fire started under the line, and within hours, a fire, the “Camp Fire” ravaged Paradise and killed 85 people.

After the wildfires, PG&E declared bankruptcy to insulate itself from the damages. In announcing their bankruptcy protection scheme, PG&E cited hundreds of civil lawsuits filed by victims from wildfires that occurred in 2017 and 2018. Those lawsuits will now be consolidated into bankruptcy court where victims will likely receive less money than had their legal actions played out in regular state or federal civil courts.

Colin Kalmbacher contributed to this report

[Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

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