Last week, the country’s largest utility company cut power for nearly a million people living in Northern California. PG&E stated that the purpose of the intentional outage was to prevent the risk of sparking a wildfire in Northern California, during a period of extremely high fire risk. This preventative measure left 800,000 people without power for days, and without any clear timetable about when power would return. This situation highlights several challenges associated with the existing grid infrastructure, and as a result, people across the country are nervous about their own utility’s shortcomings.
PG&E’s fears about sparking a wildfire are not unfounded. The utility was found to be responsible for the 2017 California Camp Fire, for which PG&E agreed to pay $11 billion in damages. Tragically, 79 people lost their lives in the fire. The blaze was created by a fault in a damaged transmission line, and the fire proved to be one of the most devastating wildfires in national history. The massive financial penalty ultimately resulted in a bankruptcy filing for the massive electric company. Now, the utility is saying that high winds in the Northern California area are leading to extremely high fire risk, and so they’ve determined that de-energizing parts of the grid in 22 counties is the safest bet to prevent another wildfire.
This move by PG&E has surprised many. It’s understandable that the company would want to avoid another tragic fire, not to mention the enormous $11 billion penalties. However, to cut off the power for 800,000 people is an extreme measure. Not only were so many people inconvenienced by not having power, but the affected area has lost billions of dollars in revenue due to the shutoff. At least one person has been reported dead after critical medical equipment was left without a power supply.
As one local business owner put it: “I understand why they did this, to a point, but to inconvenience 800,000 residents, I think it’s a little excessive. It’s costing this state billions in lost revenue and people are losing food, people are losing revenue for not being able to work. It’s devastating, it’s third world country-ish.”
The outage highlights several vulnerabilities in our existing electricity system. First and foremost, the reliability of the grid comes to mind. It’s a scary prospect to not have a steady supply of power when we need it. Not only does electricity allow for conveniences like TV and lighting, but it also supports more crucial applications, like food storage. Think of all the food that was wasted after 800,000 people were left without power for days. That alone can constitute a big loss for a household. Unless a house has a backup power option like a generator or a solar-powered battery, the occupants will be vulnerable to numerous negative effects caused by power outages.
Another concerning aspect of this ordeal is that it demonstrates the fragility of our existing grid. Much of the equipment and transmission lines are aging and in need of replacement. That need is highlighted by events like the Camp Fire. When utilities need to make massive investments to upgrade their infrastructure, they have no other place to turn besides their ratepayers. As a result, grid maintenance and repair costs ultimately fall to utility customers. This contributes to rising electricity bills, in addition to other factors such as fuel prices and availability.
These outages are a scary idea, whether you live in California or not. In this case, the blackouts were a planned tactic from the utility to prevent a wildfire. However, similar outages could be caused by a wide variety of other factors. Severe storms, earthquakes, or even terrorist attacks could produce similar situations anywhere across the country. It’s quite scary to think that while we enjoy a steady supply of power right now, it’s entirely possible that something outside of our control could interrupt that supply.
One bright spot in this particular story is the presence of energy storage in California. The state has the 2nd highest penetration of residential solar + battery systems, behind Hawaii. Thanks to their residential energy storage systems, many of those affected by the blackouts still could rely on their backup power supply within their own homes. These systems are typically only designed to provide backup power for a few selected circuits, such as refrigerators, freezers, and medical equipment. In situations like this extended outage, that backup power can be the difference between losing hundreds of dollars in spoiled food, and in some cases, it could even be the difference between life and death. With stakes as high as these, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a nationwide surge in the installations of home energy storage systems.
As the climate changes these extreme events seem to become more and more common. However, with the adoption of cutting edge technologies like these, we can at least insulate ourselves from some of the risks of blackouts.