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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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Beware of Silicon Valley Clean Energy and energy slamming

Posted in botch, business, california by commorancy on September 19, 2017

If you live in California, you need to read this. This situation has scam written ALL OVER IT. Let’s explore.

State / City Mandated ‘Clean Energy’

Apparently, as a result of city voting, some cities (such as Cupertino) have decided to force residents in that city to change their power generation provider to a third party instead of PG&E. In my case, it ends up being the scam outfit Silicon Valley Clean Energy. Why are they a scam? Here’s what happened.

First, they enrolled my electrical generation service under SVCE’s generation service without my permission. Then, SVCE waited over 60 days to notify me of my enrollment into their power generation service. Because they offered opting out at less than 60 days for free, this means I am not only being assessed a $5 exit fee from SVCE and I am now being put under PG&E’s transitional rates (which are likely to be higher than normal PG&E rates for at least 6 months). Oh, it gets even better.

Second, because I was force exited from PG&E’s generation services, PG&E gets to assess a Power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) charge (effectively it is an exit charge for leaving PG&E’s power generation services). This charge on my last bill was $25.60. If you add this charge together with SVCE’s power generation charges, the total generation fee becomes identical to PG&E’s generation charges. If you spread this fee out over 12 months, SVCE’s charges aren’t as low as they seem. Also, this PCIA seems to be assessed once a year (or as frequently as the CPUC allows PG&E to assess it). Basically, this is a charge that PG&E gets to assess to cover generation fees they lost because you moved to a competitor. And, they get to do it each year.

Third, SVCE’s crap web site would not accept my opt-out request. Their opt-out form is entirely broken. I ended up calling their phone and opt-ing out there. Unfortunately, I have no idea if they really got my opt-out request because this fly-by-night outfit only has 9-5 call-center business hours. So, I have to wait until the following day and contact them.

Fourth, I was only notified of my ‘enrollment’ in this service because of a cheap card sent to me in the mail over 60 days after my enrollment.

Fifth, they make a lot of bold claims about using wind and solar energy for generation, but do not back up those claims anywhere. They could simply be buying PG&E generated power and reselling it.

Charges and electric slamming

Not only does PG&E get to assess random charges as a result of the customer now using a third party power generation company, the power generation company gets to assess random exit charges for leaving their service when I never voluntarily joined it in the first place.

This entire situation smells of CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT. So far, I will have been assessed around $35 in fees plus an unknown amount for rates (up to 6 months) simply because SVCE grabbed my service without notifying me timely. This is the exact thing that long distance phone companies were doing in the 90’s. It is called slamming. This scam type is just another form of state / city endorsed slamming, now with the electric service.

The Feds need to jump on board and stop this slamming activity quick and force the same payback charges on the company who slammed the customer. Here’s what long distance providers were forced to do if they slammed someone onto their service and the end user paid the bill:

If you have been slammed, but discover it after you HAVE paid the bill of the slamming company, the slamming company must pay your authorized company 150 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Out of this amount, your authorized company will reimburse you 50 percent of the charges you paid the slamming company. Or, you can ask your authorized company to recalculate and resend your bill using its rates instead of the slamming company’s rates.

Electric generation companies need to be held accountable for slamming in the same way as long distance providers. Companies like SVCE riding on the coattails of city votes shouldn’t get a pass to switch services without permission. Slamming is slamming whether it’s for telephone service or power generation. No matter what it is, it’s a rip off unless the change is by consumer permission. If there are fees involved, the customer MUST authorize the change in advance. Otherwise, it is slamming.

Are electric cars really good for our environment?

Posted in economy, fun in the sun, green energy by commorancy on January 8, 2011

On the surface, this question seems like it has a simple answer.  And that simple answer is ‘Yes’… or is it?  Let’s explore.

Green or Brown?

Electric cars seem like such a great idea until you realize that you have to plug it into the power grid to recharge the thing.  So, how is this car greener than, say, its gasoline counterparts?  On the one hand, the car itself runs clean.  No fossil fuels to burn so no emissions to speak of.  This is a good thing.  The bad thing is that it has to pull from fossil fuel derived electrical energy to recharge.  This ultimately means that while the electric car itself is no longer the gross polluter, that pollution has been pushed off onto the electrical suppliers.  So they, in turn, have to ramp up more fossil fuel production to handle the added load to charge these 240v batteries in electric cars.

So, how did that exactly save us anything?  Maybe it makes the buyer of the electric vehicle feel more environmentally conscious until we consider where and how the power was generated to recharge that electric vehicle.

I should point out here, though, that the tires, the plastic parts and the moving parts are all derived from or utilize fossil fuels.  For example, nearly all lubrication is almost always fossil fuel derived.

Alternative energy sources

As more and more electric vehicles are deployed onto the nation’s roads, the power grids will have to be enhanced to support the power generation needed to recharge these cars.  That means, ultimately, more fossil fuels being burned to create that energy to send it down the line to recharge your car to let you go to work.

We need to rethink this entire process.  We need to find a way to get clean power generation from nature. Unfortunately, energies derived from solar, wind or water are temperamental and, at times, impractical.  That is, we can’t rely on solar, wind and water derived energy to support the numbers of people who want to buy into electric vehicles let alone power the entirety of people living in the US.  So, the grid suppliers have to dip into fossil fuel derived energy generation to provide electricity across the board.  As more and more of these vehicles hit the road, the grid may eventually become overtaxed by the cars and we may, once again, end up in rolling blackouts.

So, we need more stable forms of energy that are renewable for a lot longer than fossil fuels.

Running out

It has already been predicted that we are on the downward slope of fossil fuel supplies on earth (i.e., peak fossil fuel supplies).  Those rich abundant supplies that were once everywhere are slowly drying up.  If we, as a society, don’t find more clean renewable power generation, our information age may come to a halt leaving us squarely back at a time without electric power or natural gas.  A time when there were no cell phones, no cars and no grocery stores.

If you think about the things that are all around you every day that derive their existence from fossil fuels, you begin to understand the scope of a society where fossil fuels have run out.  That means, no new plastic, no gasoline, no fossil fuel generated power, no oil for motors, no computers, no iPods and no cell phones.  In fact, there won’t be much of our present society left if the earth runs out of fossil fuels.  This also includes lack of medicine and all that that implies, but let’s stay focused on energy sources.

Clean burning, natural, renewable energy sources

Are there any?  Sure, if you count water, wind and solar.  But, as I said, these are temperamental.  What other power generation tools do we have?  Well, there’s also atomic energy that heats water to steam and turns turbines. Unfortunately, the safeguards necessary to prevent another Chernobyl are too prone to human error.  Atomic energy generation is just too risky. So, are there any others? Yes.

Thermal energy

Not just any thermal energy, the earth is home to lots of geothermal energy.  The difficulty with geothermal energy is getting to it and, secondarily, preventing the creation of accidental volcanoes and eruptions.  So, where could we utilize geothermal energy and maximize the energy generation?  In the ocean, of course.  There’s plenty of water to steam and turn turbines.  There are plenty of open geothermal pockets under the ocean that lead into the water.  So, we should be able to figure out a way to take advantage of these open pockets to turn ocean water to steam and generate electric power.  The trouble, of course, is getting the power from the ocean floor back to a distribution grid to send the power out.

Geothermal energy is about the only energy on the planet that can be easily harnessed, that exists on its own and that is completely renewable.  Unless the Earth dies, geothermal energy is about the only source that we can rely on as constant.  Just look at Old Faithful to see just how stable geothermal energy can be.  The only difficulty is in trying to find a reasonably consistent geothermal vent that can be reliably used to generate energy using steam turbines. However, once enough of these are found, these can be used to eventually replace burning of fossil fuels to generate heat to generate steam to to turn turbines to create energy.

Energy deficit

Fossil fuel sources should be considered as previously stored energy pockets.  Energy that was created by the sun. The sun first fostered the growth of plants and animals here and then these plants and animals died, decayed and converted into fossil fuels.  These fuels from many many years ago are now being used today to operate our economy.  The trouble is, these fossil fuels are finite and we are using them very rapidly.  In fact, we may have used more than half of all of what’s on Earth to operate our economy from day to day.  Consider when we drilled our first oil well vs how much fossil fuel we use today.  As a result and because these resources are finite, we will eventually run out of it.  Since we really have no idea how much more we have until it all ends, we should now consider that we are living in an energy deficit, and on borrowed time.  That is, we are using more energy now than we should in order to allow for support of future generations.

So, while people continue to have babies, they aren’t asking when these babies become adults will they have a future? And, what of these kid’s babies?  Where will they be?  This is why we are now living on borrowed time at the expense of our future generations who may find themselves looking back at us thinking how selfish we were.  And they will be living at a time when they may be burning candles, eating locally grown foods and doing subsistence farming just to keep food on the table.  They may have our technology, but no energy to run it.  What will become the currency of that day?  Perhaps seed.  Once the world ends up as local economies without contact to other remote economies, the government won’t be able to keep order.  So, the government as we know it will cease to exist.  Without cars, then there’s no need for driver’s licenses or car license tags or any other governmental taxes or fees as they won’t make sense in a local economy.

Without thinking ahead for renewable energy sources, our future generations may have no future.  At least, not the future we see today.  In fact, their future may not resemble anything of  our information society.  This is very likely where we will end up without finding a new fuel source for power generation.  This is the importance of finding clean renewable energy that is synergistic with the Earth.

Electricity is not a power source

Electricity generation is the end result of the work from some other device (i.e., burning fossil fuel turns turbines that generate power).  Electricity is not a power source itself, however.  But, electricity is what drives every part of our economy today.  Just think what the world would be without electric power.  Without locating and instituting a replacement for fossil fuel electric power generation,  the world’s economy will likely end as we know it when our fossil fuel supplies dry up.  Our dependence on fossil fuel power generation is nearly 70% of all power generation in the US as of 2009 (and it is likely similar if you look at the world overall).

Full circle

So, that electric car you buy today borrows against fossil fuel power generation (coal, natural gas & petroleum) to recharge your brand new electric car.  Obtaining power from the local power grid ensures that at least 70% of the energy placed into your electric vehicle was generated by coal or natural gas, both of these resources are finite and coal does not burn clean.  So, a renewable synergistic power generation source is a must for the Earth and the future of humanity, let alone the electric vehicle which is only truly green once we have this renewable power source.

In addition to regenerative braking, we also need to consider more car regenerative power sources to keep the car from requiring recharging nearly as often and to allow for farther traveling distances. For example, someone could invent a paint that acts as a huge solar panel. So, every inch of the external painted surface could double as a huge solar power generation panel while driving in the sun. Additionally, alternating polarity magnets could be placed below highways to generate current as you drive over them which continually recharges your car’s batteries as you drive.   Thus, drastically increasing the mileage of an electric vehicle with far less need to recharge as often.  Also, fans could be placed behind the grill of the vehicle to capture wind energy as you drive.  Again, all of these techniques add even more power generation to the vehicle that increases mileage while also keeping that car aesthetically pleasing.

Looking at today’s electric vehicles, these designs seem so infantile compared to what could be achieved with proper governmental infrastructure support of electric vehicles.  Right now, electric vehicles look green, but really aren’t. Once we harness truly clean renewable energy sources (like geothermal energy) combined with more extensive regenerative power sources, we might finally be able to call the electric vehicle green.

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