Millions of Californians spent part of last week in the dark. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company cut power—on purpose. The blackout was part of efforts to prevent deadly wildfires sparked by power lines. But do power shut-offs really prevent fires?
In the past two years, California officials have blamed several blazes on trees and vegetation that hit power lines or electrical equipment. Therefore, utilities have been given authority to shut off power when fire risk is extremely high.
This year has been mild for California fires. Right now, the state is experiencing the first major fire activity of the season. Before Monday, fires had covered only a small fraction of the acreage burned by that date last year.
It’s still too early—and maybe impossible—to tell whether that smaller number is due to power cuts. After all, no human being knows what might have happened without the power shutoffs.
As energy expert Alan Scheller-Wolf says, “They can’t prove they prevented a disaster because there’s no alternative universe where they didn’t try this.”
Powering off does seem to work. Large Western utilities in Nevada and Utah say they may also start using blackouts to avoid sparking fires.
Last week’s mass fire-related power outage came after fire broke out beneath a high-voltage tower on the edge of Los Angeles. The outage affected about two million people.
Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, blasted power company PG&E yesterday for failures during the outage. She ordered a series of improvements—such as trying to restore power within 12 hours instead of its current 48 hours, reducing the scale of outages, and improving communication with affected residents.
Governor Gavin Newsom criticized PG&E too, saying shutoffs affected too many customers for too long.
But PG&E’s president, Bill Johnson, insists the utility cut power to keep customers safe and “that was the right decision.”
(A home burns as a wildfire rages through Paradise, California last November. AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)