Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Rant Time: What is a Public Safety Power Shutoff?

Posted in bankruptcy, botch, business, california by commorancy on October 10, 2019

candlelightHere’s where jurisprudence meets our every day lives (and safety) and here is also where PG&E is severely deluded and fast becoming a menace. There is actually no hope for this company. Let’s explore.

California Fire Danger Forecasting

“Officials” in California (not sure exactly to which specific organization is referred here) predicted the possibility of high winds, which could spark wildfires. This happened earlier the week of October 7 (or possibly earlier). As I said, these are “predictions”. Yet, as far as I can see, no strong winds have come to pass… a completely separate issue, but it is heavily tied to this story.

Yet, PG&E has taken it upon themselves to begin powering off areas of Northern California in “preparation” for these “predictions”… not because of an actual wind event. If the high winds had begun to materialize, then yes, perhaps mobilize and begin the power shut offs. Did PG&E wait for this? No, they did it anyway.

What exactly is Public Safety?

In the context of modern society, pretty much everything today relies on electric power generation to operate our public safety infrastructure. This infrastructure includes the likes of traffic lights to street lights to hospitals to medical equipment to refrigeration. All of these need power to function and keep the public safe. To date, we have come to rely on monopoly services like PG&E to provide these energy delivery services. Yet, what happens when the one and only one thing that PG&E is supposed to do and they can’t even do it?

Granted, what PG&E has done is intentional, but the argument is, “Are the PG&E power outages in the best interest of public safety?” Let’s explore this even further.

PG&E claims that these power outages will reduce the possibility of a wildfire. Well, that might be true from a self-centered perspective of PG&E as a corporation. After all, they’ve been tapped several times for legal liability over recent wildfire events. They’ve even had to declare bankruptcy to cover those costs incurred as a result. We’ll come to the reason behind this issue a little bit later. However, let’s stay focused on the Public Safety aspect for the moment.

PG&E claims it is in the best public safety interest to shut down its power grid. Yet, let’s explore that thought rationale. Sure, this outage action might reduce the possibility of sparking from a power line, but what it doesn’t take into account is the reduction in and lack of public safety from all of the other normal-everyday-public-safety mechanisms which have also had their power cut. As I said, street lights, traffic lights, hospitals, medical equipment, 911 services, airports and refrigeration.

The short term effect of shutting the power off might save some lives (based on a fire prediction that might not even come true), but then there are other lives which might be lost as a result of the power being shut off for days. Keep in mind that PG&E claims it might take up to 5 days to restore power after this scheduled power off event. That’s a long time to be without standard regular public safety mechanisms (simply ignoring the high wind advisory).

If PG&E has been found responsible for wildfires, then why aren’t they responsible for these incidental deaths that wouldn’t have occurred if the power had remained on. Worse, what about medical equipment and refrigeration? For people who rely on medical equipment to sustain their lives, what about these folks? How many of these could die from this outage? If it truly takes 5 days to get the power back on, what about the foods being sold at restaurants and grocery stores? If you do trust it, you might get sick… very, very sick… as in food poisoning sick. Who is responsible for that? The retailer or the restaurant?

Sure, I guess to some degree it is the retailer / restaurant. They should have thrown the food out and replaced it with fresh foods. Even then, perhaps the distributors were also affected by the outage. We can’t really know how far the food spoilage chain might go. At the root of all of this, though, it is PG&E who chose to cut the power. How many people might die as a result of PG&E force shutting off the power grid versus how many might potentially die if a wildfire ignites?

I’ve already heard there have been a number of traffic accidents because the power has been cut to traffic lights. It’s not a common occurrence to have the power out on intersections. When it does happen, many motorists don’t know the rules… and worse, they simply don’t pay attention to follow them. They just blast on through the intersection. Again, who is responsible for this? The city? No. In this case, it is truly PG&E’s responsibility. The same for food poisoning as a result of the lack of refrigeration. What about the death of someone because their medicine spoiled without refrigeration?

Trading One Evil For Another

Truly, PG&E is playing with fire. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The reality is, either way, shutting off electricity or leaving it on, PG&E risks the public’s safety. They are simply trading one set of public safety for another. Basically, they are “Robbing Peter to pay Paul.” By trying to thwart the possibility of setting an accidental wildfire, the outage can cause traffic accidents, deaths in hospitals, create food poisoning circumstances and this list goes on and on. When there is no power, this is real danger. Sometimes immediate danger, sometimes latent danger (food poisoning) which may present weeks later.

The reality is, it is PG&E who is responsible for this. PG&E “thinks” (and this is the key word here) that they are being proactive to prevent forest fires. In reality, they’re creating even more public safety issues by cutting the power off indiscriminately.

Cutting Power Off Sanely?

The first problem was in warning the public. PG&E came up with this plan with too short of a notice. The public was not properly notified in advance. If this outage scenario were on the table of options for PG&E to pursue during the wildfire season, this information should have been disseminated early in the summer. People could have had several months to prepare for this eventuality. Instead of notifying months ahead, they chose to notify at a moment’s notice forcing a cram situation when everyone floods the stores and gas stations trying to keep their homes in power and prepare. At the bare minimum, PG&E should be held responsible for inciting public frenzy. Instead, with proper planning and notification, people could have had several months notice to buy generators, stock up on water, buy a propane fridge, buy a propane stove, prep their fridges and freezers, and so on.

With a propane fridge, many people can still have refrigeration in their home during an extended (up to 7 day) power outage. This prevents both spoilage of foods and of medicines. Unfortunately, when it comes to crunch time notices, supplies and products run out quick. Manufacturers don’t build products for crunch time. They build for limited people to buy over a short period of time. Over several months, these manufacturers could have ramped up production for such a situation, but that can’t happen overnight. PG&E was entirely remiss with this notification. For such drastic knee-jerk actions to public safety, it needs to notify the public months in advance of this possibility. This is public menace situation #1.

Indiscriminate Power Outages

Here’s a second big problem with PG&E’s outage strategy. PG&E can’t pick and choose its outages. Instead, its substations cover whole swatches of areas which may include such major public safety issues as traffic lights and hospitals, let alone restaurants and grocery stores whose food is likely to spoil.

If PG&E could sanely turn off power to only specific businesses and residences without risking the power to hospitals, cell phone infrastructure, 911 and traffic infrastructure, then perhaps PG&E’s plan might be in a better shape. Unfortunately, PG&E’s outage strategy is a sledgehammer approach. “Let’s just shut it all down.”, I can almost hear them say. Dangerous! Perhaps even more long term dangerous than the possibility of not setting a wildfire. Who’s to say? This creates public menace situation #2.

Sad Infrastructure

Unfortunately, this whole situation seems less about public safety and more about CYA. PG&E has been burned (literally) several times over the last few wildfire seasons. In fact, they were both literally and monetarily burned so hard that this is less about actual public safety and more about covering PG&E’s legal butt. Even then, as I said above, PG&E isn’t without legal liability simply because they decided to cut the power to thwart a wildfire. In fact, while the legal liability might not be for causing a wildfire, instead it might be for incidental deaths created by outages at intersections, by deaths created in hospitals and in homes due to medical equipment failure, by deaths created via food spoilage in restaurants and grocery stores… and even food spoilage or lack of medical care in the home.

The reality behind PG&E’s woes is not tied to its supposedly proactive power outage measures, it is actually tied to its aging infrastructure. Instead of being proactive and replacing its wires to be less prone to sparking (what it should have been doing for the last 10 years or more), it has done almost nothing in this area. Instead of cutting back brush around its equipment, it has resorted to turning the power off. Its liability in wildfires is almost directly attributable to relying on infrastructure created and installed decades ago by the likes of Hetch Hetchy (and other early electric infrastructure builders) back in the early 1900s. I’m not saying that every piece of this infrastructure is nearly 100 years old, but some of it is. That’s something to think about right there.

PG&E does carry power from Hetch Hetchy to its end users via Hetch Hetchy generation facilities, but more importantly, through PG&E’s monopoly electric lines to its end users. PG&E also generates its own electricity from its own facilities. It also carries power from other generation providers like SVCE. The difficulty with PG&E is its monopoly in end user delivery. No other company is able to deliver power to PG&E’s end user territory, leaving consumers with only ONE commercial choice to power their home. End users can opt to install their own in-home energy generation systems such as solar, wind or even diesel generators (when the city allows), but that’s not a “commercial” provider like PG&E.

Because PG&E has the market sewn up, everyone who uses PG&E is at their mercy to provide solid continuous power… that is, until they don’t. This is public menace situation #3.

Legal Troubles

I’m surprised that PG&E has even decided to use this strategy considering its risky nature. To me, this forced power outage strategy seems as big a liability in and of itself as it does against wildfires.

PG&E is assigned one task: Deliver Power. If it can’t do this, then PG&E needs to step aside and let another company more experienced in to replace PG&E’s dominance in power delivery. If PG&E can’t even be bothered to update its aging equipment, which is at the heart of this entire problem, then it definitely needs to step aside and let a new company start over. Sure, a new company will take time to set it all up, but once it’s going, PG&E can quietly wind down and go away… which may happen anyway considering both its current legal troubles and its bankruptcy.

The state should, likewise, allow parties significantly impacted by this forced power outage (i.e., death or injury) to bring lawsuits against PG&E for its improperly planned and indiscriminately executed power outage. Except, because PG&E is still in bankruptcy court, consumers who are wronged by this outage must stand in line behind all of those who are already in line at PG&E’s bankruptcy court. I’m not even sure why the bankruptcy judge would have even allowed this action by PG&E while still in bankruptcy. Considering the possibility of significant additional legal liabilities incurred by this forced outage, the bankruptcy judge should have foreseen this and denied its action. It’s almost like PG&E execs are all, “F-it, we’ll just turn it all off and if they want to sue us, they’ll have to get in line.” This malicious level of callous disregard for public safety needs much more state and legal scrutiny. The bankruptcy judge should have had a say over this action by PG&E. That they didn’t, this makes public menace situation number 4, thus truly making PG&E an official public safety menace and a nuisance.

Updated 10/11/2019 — Clarification

I’ve realized that while one point was made in the article, it wasn’t explicitly called out.  To clarify this point, let’s explore. Because PG&E acted solely on a predicted forecast and didn’t wait for the wind event to actually begin, PG&E’s actions egregiously disregarded public safety. As I said in the main body of the article above, PG&E traded one “predicted” public safety event for actual real incurred public safety events. By proceeding to shut down the power WITHOUT the predicted wind event manifesting, PG&E acted recklessly towards public safety. As a power company, their sole reason to exist is to provide power and maintain that public safety. By summarily shutting down power, not only did they fail to provide the one thing they are in business to do, they shut the power down for reasons other than for fire safety. As I stated above, this point is the entire reason that PG&E is now an official menace to the public.

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