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Climate Change Dictates That The PG&E Power Outage Likely Won’t Be The Last

Climate Change Dictates That The PG&E Power Outage Likely Won’t Be The Last

Maddie Blaauw
PG&E intentional power outage

Rising temperatures don’t just mean increased natural disasters. As shown by the Pacific Gas and Utility Company (PG&E)’s recent intentional power outage in California, these woes are being handed straight down to consumers by companies.

Northern California’s “Public Safety Shutoff”

On Wednesday, the Pacific Gas and Utility Company (PG&E) cut power to over half a million customers in Northern California, the largest intentional power outage of its kind. The state is currently in the middle of prime wildfire season; any rain from spring to prevent the blazes has long since dried up in the heat of summer. 

The outage, or “public safety shutoff” as the company called it, was a financial decision from PG&E. California state law requires a utility company to pay for damages if a wildfire is started by its power lines. In 2017, PG&E was forced to declare bankruptcy after it could not pay for the damages of the Camp Fire. The Camp Fire remains the most destructive and deadliest wildfire in California to date. The fire burned over 150,000 acres and killed 85 people. With these statistics, it isn’t surprising to hear that the insurance settlement PG&E agreed to pay for this fire totaled $11 billion

Preventing another Camp Fire with a power outage

In an effort to prevent a second Camp Fire, PG&E shut off power to its customers using Wednesday and Thursday. The dry, hot, windy conditions made risks of power lines starting forest fires even higher than usual. To minimize the possibility of causing another $11 billion dollar fire, an estimated 700,000 customers went without power. A single “customer” can be a unit like a household or apartment complex. One can safely assume that the number of people without power on those two days was much higher. 

According to the California Department of Public Health, the outage affected 39 hospitals. Facilities like nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities had to find a way to function on reduced or no power. Most responded by increasing stores of critical supplies like oxygen tanks. At this point, only one reported death appears to have resulted from the lack of power. The death did not occur at a healthcare facility. 

By Friday, PG&E stated that while over 500,000 customers affected by the blackout had their power back on, almost 200,000 did not. 

Will massive intentional outages be more common in the future?

As stated above, the direct causes the company stated for initiating the blackout were dry, windy conditions. However, many scientists speculate that ultimately, climate change will increase the frequency of utility companies minimizing financial risks in this manner when weather conditions turn prime for trauma caused by powerlines. As found in a recent study from a collaboration between Columbia University and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, “since the early 1970s, warm‐season days warmed by approximately 1.4°C as part of a centennial warming trend, significantly increasing the atmospheric vapor pressure deficit (VPD).” The vapor pressure deficit is the difference between the amount of water actually in the air at a point in time and the total amount of water the air could hold. If this difference is larger, the air is drier.

Both of these changes in typical day-to-day weather conditions have increased the chances of wildfires occurring. The severity of the fires when they do start has also gone up: the state’s annual burned area has increased to be five times as great as it was in 1972, a statistic found by the same study. As human actions and policies currently stand, scientists do not forecast this trend of increasing temperature and dry conditions to stop. Because of this, the infrastructure of wildfire-prone places like California, especially electrical infrastructure, could soon be extremely outdated and unfit to prevent starting wildfires in adverse weather conditions.

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The blackout in California this week was historical. In the future, these precautionary power outages may become increasingly standard.

Accommodating for the damage done

It is crucial and important that we take steps to prevent additional harm to the environment. This can take to form of more eco-friendly practices of major companies. Another possibility is the implementation of policy by governments to motivate or facilitate, financially or otherwise, a transition to less destructive practices. This topic is the main focus of current political debate.

However, when talking about how to stop climate change, the focus cannot just be on how to stop temperatures from increasing more. There must also be a discussion of how to adjust society to the effects that have already taken hold. The increase in the risk of electrical lines starting wildfires is just one example of this.

While discussion of action on climate change is certainly better than no discussion at all, ignoring the consequences we must already face would be irresponsible to those who suffer because of them.

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