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California Blackout: Turning the Lights Off

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Via Naked Capitalism

The adaptations to the “new normal” of elective and large-scala PG&E blackouts in California has only begun. The utility has warned it may impose its biggest blackout so far over this weekend due to high winds and continued bone-dry conditions. The first blackout hit about 2 million people; the one earlier this week, about 450,000, and this weekend’s could affect as many as the first but be of longer duration.

I’m going to keep this short because I anticipate readers will have quite a few comments.

It’s not just PG&E; SoCalEd turned out the lights for about 26,000 customers. NBC reports that a good rule of thumb is that a customer represents about 2.5 people, so call it 65,000. But the PG&E blackouts have been far and away the largest, and the utility has been in its customers’ faces by telling them to expect this sort of thing for as much as a decade. Given how well PG&E is managed, if the execs and shareholders don’t lose their spots in the bankruptcy, expect the “hardening” to take even longer.

Hardware stores report that batteries and backup generators are sold out. And the rush to install backup generators is a climate change negative, since most run on diesel fuel.

It is hard to see how individuals who rely on equipment, such as the injured or handicapped not being able to use elevators in their buildings, or homeowners with electrical septic tanks, get by. New York City had a dose of that in the aftermath of Sandy in the blackout areas. Some people were bringing food to the elderly and other mobility-restricted individuals. But that sort of ad hoc charity too often has gaps. People would walk uptown to get a coffee and charge their phones. That is going to look like a luxury in a long-lived blackout in California.

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The Wall Street Journal describes how businesses in blackout area have been hard hit. The ones that suffer the most are small grocers that don’t have generators. And for them, the cost of buying a generator ($100,000) or renting one ($20,000 per day) is prohibitive. Most small businesses are precarious. How long before they start folding? How long before that starts affecting employment, at least in local communities?

The Journal starts with the expected vignette:

The last time PG&E Corp. shut off electricity in the Sierra Nevada foothills city of Placerville, Calif., Pop Art Custom Framing Gallery lost about $8,000 in four days, according to Daniel Anderson, who owns the store with his wife.

Now, the power is off again, part of a second wave of intentional blackouts PG&E imposed this week so that forecast high winds won’t knock down one of its lines and spark a wildfire. Pop Art faces even more losses that Mr. Anderson said his family can’t afford…

Grocery stores have been among the most affected during the shutdown because of their perishable inventory. Preliminary numbers indicate that grocers in California lost anywhere from $3,000 to $100,000 a store from the last blackout, said Ronald Fong, chief executive of the California Grocers Association trade group…

In Placerville’s historic downtown, only four of the 86 merchants surveyed during the last outage had backup generators, said Heidi Mayerhofer of the Placerville Downtown Association. She estimates the businesses lost hundreds of thousands of dollars during the last blackout and stand to lose untold thousands more in the new shutdown, depending how long it lasts.

Governor Gavin Newsom is looking mighty ineffective. Of course, he inherited a mess very long in the making, but he is still nominally the guy in charge. He proposed that PG&E pay small businesses $250 each for the outage. The gesture went over badly since $250 is bupkis compared to the losses. And PG&E gave the passive aggressive blowoff of saying that it appreciated the feedback.

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And PG&E is seen as positioning itself to oust Newsom. From David in Santa Cruz, by e-mail:

It’s a pretty transparent repeat of the 2003 recall, except that they don’t have a Hollywood-type waiting in the wings. Someone I know plugged-in to the alt-right says the recall campaign is already in motion, funded (no doubt) by the energy people.

Newsom has to see them coming.

Needless to say, here are the ugly dynamics of a one-party state. As we can see from CalPERS, California has open incompetence and corruption, yet without the threat of the other party making political hay from it. It’s easy to snigger at the virtually expected bribery and abuses you see in the South, but it’s hard to take high and mighty California seriously with its long-standing failure to crack down on PG&E imperiling life, limb, and the almighty economy.

Yes, there’s the original sin of how the utility privatizations were executed, with the generating plants separated from the power lines. But having recognized that mistake and the consequences, there’s no excuse, save for the “Jake, it’s Chinatown” sort, for not having required PG&E to invest more and charge more.

So California is giving the rest of the US a preview of what will be in store for areas with aged transmission facilities and/or vulnerability of fires. And in some ways California is better able to cope. For the most part, power outages won’t result in people dying of cold or heatstroke. But how many people who need to get in front of risks like this can and will do so? The US has gotten to be very bad at collective responses, and individual action takes time and money that many lack.

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So practice the brace position, or count your blessings if by virtue of planning or luck you are not likely to be hit by climate change blowback soon.

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