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Unsustainable California: No Easy Remedy for PG&E Blackouts, Fire Risks

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Via Naked Capitalism

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In his classic book Collapse, Jared Dimond used Montana as a case study of a “society” that would be on a collapse trajectory were it not propped up by trade. One wonders what the UCLA professor would say if he were to speak candidly about California now, starting with its dependence on water from the Colorado River. The massive PG&E blackouts, cutting power to millions of Northern California users on Wednesday, not just individuals but businesses and critical facilities like hospitals and services like traffic lights, demonstrates how vital infrastructure in the US is at third-world levels. And it’s not just our tatty airports but also bridges and roads and water mains.

First, on the scale of the blackout. From NBC, PG&E slammed for cutting power to millions of Californians:

Californians from the governor on down slammed the state’s largest utility on Wednesday for rolling blackouts that could plunge up to 2 million people into darkness as it scrambles to keep its power lines from sparking new wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., or PG&E, began shutting off power in phases early Wednesday to about 500,000 customers in northern and central parts of the state, including sections of the San Francisco Bay Area. A second wave, affecting about 250,000 customers, began in the afternoon.

Because customers include businesses in addition to individual homes, PG&E said the shutdown could affect as many as 2 million Californians. And it said customers wouldn’t be reimbursed for lost business, housing alternatives or spoiled food and medicines.

One vignette of the dislocation. You can be sure the press will have many stories:

And the economic consequences, from Gizmodo:

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program, tweeted that the PG&E blackout could result in anywhere from $65 million to $2.5 billion in losses over the entire planned outage area. That low end of the spectrum only looks at costs to residential losses while the high end includes commercial and industrial impacts and lost productivity.

Oh, and the backup generators that some hospitals, businesses, and even homes use? Most are diesel powered and diesel generators are dirty. And emergency fuel demand could outstrip supply. From Renewable Energy World earlier this year:

According to Bloomberg, PG&E is planning to deenergize the grid as many as 15 times this coming wildfire season in high threat areas, with the average outage duration ranging from two to five days. This means that, for the foreseeable future, California will have the least reliable electric grid in the U.S. by a significant margin…

The expected shutdowns in California are driving a huge and sudden demand for backup power. This demand has spurred a move towards large-scale deployment of diesel generators across the state. While diesel generators may represent the simplest short-term solution, there are several obvious reasons that Californians should find this response problematic. First of all, these diesel generators will be a terrible source of pollution. Secondly, activation of diesel generators for extended duration during outages will necessitate broad diesel refueling operations, for which the supply of fuel will not be sufficient.

And electrical car owners in the blackout areas who didn’t charge up in time will be stuck.

The horrid state of PG&E’s grid is an indictment not just of the utility’s management and operations, but on the lack of oversight by the state regulator and prosecutors who could also have put the boot on PG&E’s neck. As we wrote:

PG&E has become a prime, if not the number one, case study in the human cost of corporate penny pinching…

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published a major story based on extensive Freedom of Information Act disclosures, providing evidence of PG&E’s systematic, willful neglect not just of maintenance but even of inspections of its transmission lines, despite knowing full well that their decrepit state constituted a serious fire risk….

From the Journal:

The failure last year of a century-old transmission line that sparked a wildfire, killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise wasn’t an aberration, the documents show. A year earlier, PG&E executives conceded to a state lawyer that the company needed to process many projects, all at once, to prevent system failures—a problem they said could be likened to a “pig in the python.”

Even before November’s deadly fire, the documents show, the company knew that 49 of the steel towers that carry the electrical line that failed needed to be replaced entirely.

In a 2017 internal presentation, the large San Francisco-based utility estimated that its transmission towers were an average of 68 years old. Their mean life expectancy was 65 years. The oldest steel towers were 108 years old.

Even as fire risks increased starting in 2013 due to sustained droughts, it kept putting off upgrading its oldest transmission lines. But at least as bad is that PG&E was grossly, one might even say deliberately, ignorant of the state of its network. How can you be in the business of operating a network and not have basic information about its historical and current condition?

A key paragraph comes in the middle of the account:

Documents show that PG&E is unaware of the exact age of many of its transmission towers and wires. In 2010, PG&E commissioned consulting firm Quanta Technology, a subsidiary of Quanta Services Inc., to assess the age and condition of transmission structures throughout its 70,000-square-mile service area.

The firm was unable to determine the age of about 6,900 towers in the 115-kilovolt system. It found that nearly 30% of the remaining towers in that system, more than 3,500, were installed in the 1900s and 1910s. About 60% of the structures in the 230-kilovolt system were built between 1920 and 1950.

Do a little math. If 3,500 towers = “nearly 30%,” assume 29%, which gives a total of the portion that were dated of roughly 12,100. The formula for the portion that Quanta had to punt on was 6,900/(6,900 + 12,100), for a stunning 40%. Even after hiring a consultant, PG&E didn’t have a clue as to the age of about 40% of its system, and it’s a safe guess that it didn’t know bupkis about its condition either.

Courtesy Wolf Richter, here’s an example of PG&E infrastructure in San Francisco, which means the utility presumably had tabs on it:

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But the California PG&E problem, of a particularly shoddy electrical utility with doesn’t even have a proper inventory of its assets, is only a part of this sorry picture. California is a US story writ large, of minimally regulated development, of the particular US fondness for housing and a strong bias towards efficiency and cheapness over safety, and of a lack of interest in resource constraints until they hit a crisis level.

Consider California population growth:

1990 29.95 million
2000 33.63 million
2010 37.27 million
2018 39.56 million

This is a pernicious example of Warren Buffet’s miracle of compounding. A “mere” sustained annual growth rate of 3.4% over 28 years has increased the population by one-third. But other factors have led to a disproprotionate increase in housing. First, the rise in second homes. This data isn’t as long-term but gives an idea:

Second is the more difficult to quantify impact of conversion of owned homes and rentals to AirBnB and other non-primary residence uses. For instance, one of our former WordPress jockeys lived in the Tenderloin district, a relatively affordable, former working class ‘hood in San Francisco. When Twitter moved its headquarters there, her rent increased 40% due to Twitter execs and senior managers renting crash pads nearby.

Third is the effect not just of population increases driving up centrally-located and not-too-distant housing prices, but the intensification of the impact due to rising income inequality.

Fourth is foreign investors buying apartments and homes, which they leave largely vacant.

These developments have led to Californians building homes in riskier and riskier areas: the well off seeing hillsides with vistas, the less affluent winding up in exurbs like Paradise, the site of the horrific Camp Fire that destroyed over 150,000 acres and killed over 80 people.

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One can argue that PG&E was obligated to supply power to these locations….but without taking extra safety measures. If PG&E doesn’t even know the status of 40% of its infrastructure, it’s hard to imagine that it cuts dangerous tree branches often enough (something I see happening regularly in semi-rural and poor Maine, where this is a costly exercise due to Maine having more roads per capita any other state).

But PG&E isn’t the only party at fault. The American fondness for lax zoning means firebreaks are only infrequently established, and they are arguably of limited use in California, due to the way fires driven by high winds can jump large distances, and that many houses are in hilly areas where firebreaks are of limited value. There are alternatives like fuel breaks, which both create a development amenity and are much better at containing wind-driven fires, yet my impression is they haven’t been much adopted even in newer developments. From a comment last year at Quora by former firefighter David Sandbrook:

At one time the Forest Service did create fire breaks — bulldozer lines 20–30 feet or more wide of bare dirt — snaking across ridgetops.

They were largely abandoned and brush allowed to reclaim them, for several reasons. A strip of bare dirt going downhill becomes a huge eroded gully the first winter, creating a huge siltation and mudslide problem at the bottom of the hill. They have to be maintained and kept clear of brush. And the third reason is they do not work well at all in a wind driven fire. I personally observed a fire cross eight lanes of interstate highway.

A similar concept is used now with fuelbreaks. These are not stripped down to bare dirt. Ground cover is left. Trees are thinned and lower branches pruned, brush is removed, and the result looks like a park. These are 300 feet or more wide, and usually associated with a road and surrounds a community of homes or other high value resource. A fire will still burn through it, but with lower intensity and the road allows firefighters to stop the fire at the road, or the road is an anchor point to backfire from.

These also must be periodically maintained or the fuel grows back or the fuelbreak ceases to exist, and that is a problem. Any landowner or fire agency has limited funds available for fuel reduction work. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of fuel reduction work needed, and it costs money. Once a fuelbreak is built, periodic maintenance also costs money. A land manager or fire manager has to distribute the limited (taxpayer’s) money to get the best value. So where do you prioritize? Building a new fuelbreak around the next subdivision or maintain the existing ones? The residents of each subdivision want the money spent protecting their homes, and will scream and complain if not (and hire lawyers and go to court, go to the media, protest in front of city hall, support candidates who promise to give them what want…). Residents also complain about tax increases to pay for fuel reduction, refuse to vote for tax increases…

Focus on the magnitude of this approach…football field sized parks. They’d be terrific amenities, but think about the land cost, which developers would build into the prices of new projects. And retrofitting? Fuggedaboudit.

Another open question is where insurers sit in this conundrum. As much as people are attached to their communities and their properties, rebuilding in a known danger zone, like New Jersey shore towns that are likely to be washed again into the sea, or in Paradise, isn’t a great idea in terms of individual risk. It’s surprising that insurers haven’t started writing policies that require people who rebuild in areas with high flood or fire risk to kit out their homes to reduce their exposure, or alternatively, give bonuses to move to safer areas. The flip side is that moves like this could be so controversial that they may have to ultimately be legislated…which you can be sure won’t happen any time soon.

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In the meantime, we have pious handwringing. While this section of a Los Angeles Times editorial makes a valid point, it doesn’t go far enough. If everyone is to blame, no one is to blame:

This bitter meal has been years in the making by many cooks.

It wasn’t PG&E officials who approved housing developments in high-risk areas. In fact, the utility can’t say no to serving those homes, no matter how great the fire risk. The utility also doesn’t make decisions about how the vegetation around their customers’ houses and the forests nearby are managed. Nor is it the utility’s fault that human-caused climate change has created conditions that fuel massive wildfires…

Of course Californians must not accept blackouts as the new normal every time the winds blow. But until we make the changes in land use and fire safety needed to ensure that utility lines won’t trigger the sort of devastation that leveled the town of Paradise last year, power shutdowns will be our collective cross to bear.

This may sound logical, but the fact is Californians will accept blackouts because it would take wrenching changes, including abandoning lots of homes and even communities, to reduce fire risk enough. An alternative would be a massive, double-quick rebuild of PG&E infrastructure to much more fire-resistant standards….but even if that were an attainable goal and would make a real difference, it would take years and would greatly increase power costs.

This section of a PopSci article (hat tip David L) is also peculiar in its lack of agency:

Events like the power shutdowns in California—whether preemptive, as is the case this year, or compulsory because of large fires, as in years past—will continue to happen. People in the developed world expect “one hundred percent reliability” from infrastructure, says Mikhail Chester, a professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. But “we have pushed infrastructure to a point where we are going to have to recognize that reliability is going to become compromised more and more often,” he says.

Our roads, our power grids, and our water supply systems were all designed to support a world that no longer exists. That world had fewer people, better funding for basic maintenance, and a more predictable climate. Those circumstances seemed pretty permanent—so the infrastructure that was designed for them is pretty permanent too. That has become a problem, says Chester, because the world we live in now is marked by instability.

Who is this “we”? California citizens didn’t vote for PG&E to grossly underinvest in its plant and network. A Californian I know who has been spending time in Germany and France has been stunned at the high quality of the roads there compared to his home state. Chester, by contrast, acts as if underfunding were an act of God, not political choices that in large measure resulted from decades of right-wing anti government messaging.

Even though the Gilet Jaunes are critical of highway maintenance in rural areas, I have a sneaking suspicion that roads that are sub-par enough by French standards so as to lower driving speeds are still markedly better than highways in, say, downstate Michigan and northwestern Ohio.

The larger point here is simple, but too ugly to face square on, hence the supposed straight talk that minces around the rotting corpse of existing conditions. As Yankees sometimes say, “You can’t get there from here.” There’s a lot that could be done to reduce exposure to the worst effects of climate change and mass species extinctions. There is also a lot we could do to slow and even stop the damage we are doing on both fronts. But they require massive changes and costs, including ending many people’s current livelihoods and making them upend their lives in other ways. It’s easier to deny things are as bad as they are.

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