Starting yesterday, nearly a million people in Northern California are having their power shut off for days at a time as a way to prevent wildfires.
The preventative shutdowns are utility PG&E’s way to avoid a third year of catastrophic wildfires caused by down electrical lines. Over the last decade, PG&E has been responsible for nearly 400 deaths, billions of dollars of property loss, and the destruction of the entire town of Paradise, CA last fall. Now, a convicted felon in the midst of their second bankruptcy, PG&E admits they can’t clear enough trees fast enough to maintain an adequate fire break during dry/high wind conditions.
Meanwhile, residents and businesses are scrambling to find a way to stay safe during the shutdowns. Anyone who relies on electricity to keep perishables cold or to operate critical medical equipment has to find alternatives quickly or suffer the consequences.
How did we get here? Decades of delayed maintenance and an unwillingness to tackle a tough problem have put PG&E in this bind. But no one should be surprised by the preventative shutdowns. The utility threatened to do this last year (which would have likely spared the town of Paradise). They’ve repeatedly told the public since then they would implement these actions during times of high fire danger this year. Yet until this week, it appears most people didn’t take steps to be prepared.
The lesson here: Don’t avoid tough issues in the hope they’ll go away. Whether it involves preventative maintenance or contingency planning for loss of power, the warning signs were there. The consequences of not acting on them are severe.
The only winners in a power struggle like this are those who don’t need to participate because they’ve developed a Plan B. That’s a dark lesson many will be learning this week and beyond.
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