The San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG & E) recently announced it will institute a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” policy during “Red Flag” periods with low humidity and sustained winds in excess of 25 mph. The company will shut down its electrical grid for as many as 5.4 million users when such conditions exist, in order to reduce the chances of a wild fire occurring, despite the obvious risks to shut-ins and the elderly. The shutoffs could last up to five days, prompting the company to suggest that the elderly and shut-ins who “require electricity to sustain life” may wish to create an “emergency preparedness plan.” Nice call. Government officials fear that patients on medical equipment could be at risk of dying under the new policy and noted that during recent wildfires some seniors were unable to open garage doors to escape.
PG & E was bankrupted after facing $30 billion in liability claims in 2017 and 2018 and says it has been forced to adopt the shutoffs by a California Court of Appeals opinion that makes utilities liable for wind-driven powerline-sparking wildfire losses without regard for determination of negligence. Power companies and other observers say that California has suffered more and bigger wildfires since the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 that prioritized protecting old-growth forests. The Bush administration tried to reverse the Clinton-era policy, but was rebuffed by environmentalists. The Obama administration reinstated the anti-logging policies and supported even stricter logging rules put in place by former California Governor Jerry Brown. The California Legislature passed Senate Bill 901, signed by Brown in 2018, which relieved utilities from liability during the wildfire “de-energizing” events, paving the way for a future full of them.
The desire to protect certain species, habitats and old-growth forests is warranted, but there most be a concurrent cost-benefit analysis, both for the environment and for the people at risk.
“Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” essentially mandated by government policy, are “red-flag” events for the elderly and infirm, for whom they are anything but safe. How many people will be permanently “de-energized” when the electricity is shut off?