When 'Public Safety' Blackouts Are Meant To Prevent Wildfires

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this message comes from NPR sponsor xfinity some things are slow like a snail races other things are fast like xfinity x. by get fast speeds even when everyone is online working to make wifi simple easy awesome more at xfinity dot com restrictions apply and what might they tell us about the threats the rest of the nation's power grids face joining us from austin texas is russell gold senior energy reporter for the wall street journal and the out two days over the weekend we were supposed to lose power last night but we haven't lost it so far and you know i live in should clarify that just a little bit here's the CEO of PG any bill johnson speaking at an update last night where they were updating the public about these outages started in washington a year ago we spoke to the mayor of paradise california just days after a wildfire broke out there at least ninety percent of the home orange today as more fires burn up and down the state wine country is threatened again this time by ablaze power line that reportedly failed minutes how certainly would probably be pretty indefensible we would have to get out of there fast and and i think if a big fire came through for the fire started those lines belong to PG any a company that has faced investigations and lawsuits over negligent maintenance what's the latest with these fires everything is gone but the vast majority of homes are the paradise fire and another blaze that devastated parts of wine country are very much on the minds of cali- knows how have you been affected either by the fires of the blackouts well thankfully we haven't been directly affected by fires although sam mentioned we will lose our house just sort of pretty pretty pretty straightforward right now yeah and we've mentioned these power outages founder and executive director of the breakthrough institute a california based think tank that focuses on tech solutions to environmental challenges ted welcome thanks and instead author of superpower one man's quest to transform american energy russell welcome back to one a. thank you so much for having me joining us from oakland is ted nordhausen did all our library our post office or town hall police department the k. marts still there and the starbucks is still there it's not like are now is blazing over seventy six thousand acres and we've got any people obviously have been displaced and who lost their homes to the north of us and of course the the air quality is pretty bad and it's going to get worse but we have definitely been affected by the show the power shut offs we were we lost power for hair equality throughout the barriers going to continue to worsen for the next day or two as that smoke drifts south ted what about you you live in the berkeley foothill okay and in san jose right now well we've got a few hundred residents were without power but it's far worse to the north of us is you know can cater jose we're joined by its mayor samll cardio mr mayor glad to have you with us going to be with you again joshua merely carl let me start with you how are things in the south are just to the foundation there's nothing left our business district fared a little better i would say maybe fifty percent are hostile running workers off the road i mean i i understand that people are upset about these blackouts but it seems like it's kind of skipped some levels yeah i mean it's a pretty simple equation right now in a part of the berkeley hills that you know if a fire like the ones that have swept through the wine country in paradise came through there you know are are ESPN he has been our employees repeatedly targets misguided attacks verbal abuse threats power outages in the typical sense right now exactly ESPN's stands for public safety power shut off and what it is is that when they're a to shut off parts of their grit and the purpose the reason that they do it is that if the wind causes a problem physical assaults even weapons today one of our aging employees drive was intentionally run up the road by everyone are the fire conditions weather conditions are high winds low humidity PG knee and and frankly other utilities in california have the ability the power on the the twenty third about a week ago when they shut off the power to a large portion of the wine country one of the lines that was still on appears to have faltered shut up are the the higher fire risk is and i think people are really sort of failing to appreciate that and it's gonna take a long time and a lot of money the word gosh going on a decade now back in two thousand ten there was a fire in a neighborhood south of san francisco called san bruno where transmission line gas transmission line exploded fix that problem russell could you give us a little bit more just to the background of what the CEO was talking about these p. s. p. s. events these are kind of blackouts that aren't that was caused by transmission line that was you know that they had designated and said that they needed to do maintenance on they were concerned about the age and can where it is the the less power you shut off the more narrowly targeted plant for the last twenty years or so and we have all been victims of that in various ways and so during that time they've also that has had a series of safety violations they they're currently on federal probation for for safety violations from that gas transmission line explosion that you mentioned orange you know which has been known for four thinking and sort of bringing us the future with the internet and all these companies that are une- should basically be taken over publicly that it should be forced to become a nonprofit cooperative if i'm understanding correctly do i have that right and why addition of it and they didn't get around to it in time so yeah this is this is a company that had a lot of problems and and a lot of maintenance related issues for for many years blew up a neighborhood and killed thirty eight people so PG been kind of under scrutiny for a long time with regards to its safety record right no question i think that thirty eight the debt is is a little on the high sizing was a little closer to ten people on not mistaken but but your point is is accurate and we've written about this number of times this year the wall street journal this is a company i think a customer owned bottle is better one is it really enables this company get access to capital markets the cost of capital is much lower and we know community there your neighbors they're they're here to help that's the CEO of PG and e. bill johnson speaking at an update last night at ten and and then we've reported that the big twenty eighteen campfire which which burn rate through paradise killed eighty five people did and is sort of the prime suspect in starting the giant kincaid fire right now we should also note russell the PGA has had a bad reputation in terms of maintenance yeah and you're russell you're actually correct who's about thirty some odd homes that were destroyed but about eight people were killed in the san bruno gas fire so thank you for that mayor licadho you have suggested that PG the causes a power line to fall it won't be energized and it won't start a fire it's pretty simple so at this point they're sort of saying you know the best defense we behavior of a company that needs to focus scarce dollars on getting out of bankruptcy paying off claiming and obviously upgrading it infrastructures the other reason why i supplant the kurds shareholders as the owner of the company and and there were only two basic reasons one is to align the company's financial interests of it change business models as opposed to for example encouraging everyone in california to buy one share of PG any so they become shareholders have is just to shut off the power grid it's it's really a stunning situation to find ourselves in the beginning of the twenty-first century especially in a place like the the the bay area of kelly was this the men and women appear jeez you see in your community i never seen movies that help breakthrough institute i'm joshua johnson and you're listening to one a. from WMU and NPR support i think that's what should happen you have it mostly right looking to happen government takeover the utility but rather have the custom i know i gotta let you go on just a second and we do have some listeners who are agree that the profit motive is an issue but PG and he has said that it's not for sale not surprisingly i also wonder why the risk bankruptcy court that's what bankruptcy is the assets are reorganized and this is the opportunity for us is really reimagined four nonprofit cooperative enables it to for example not have to pay federal taxes not have to pay dividends to shareholders so that money that could be focused word connect with new customers and work more productively learn more at google dot com slash grou- halloween is supposed to be a scary time of the year but a safe and thank you very much for talking to us great to be with you jackson we'll talk about the broader issues of power grids when we continue with russell gold of the wall street journal and ted nord house of the line the grow with google initiative support small businesses by providing free digital skills workshops and one on one coaching and all fifty states helping businesses get online the public interest as was mentioned by you know there's a company that's underinvested and maintaining its infrastructure upgrading its it's when you know the the well anyway internet companies and yet here we are not able to keep the power on and there are sort of intentionally shutting off and even times when they do intensely shot or this podcast and the following message come from google from connecticut to california from mississippi to minnesota millions of american businesses are using google tools to grow on i wonder if i did not update the infrastructure on my car to meet modern standards and through that negligence i call it someone harm would i not be held accountable moreover hey you know in a two year period of time in one point nine billion dollars dividends to shareholders they paid tens of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives though it's not and we decide who's on the board and the board ultimately drives the policies that company but i i should say that i think PG's mistaken when they say they're not for sale in fact you've seen the news real-life is so scary racism assoc- scary climate change is so scary fear in an age of real life horror on emergencies by trying to mitigate one emergency and i think that there's probably a better solution we have bright blue skies sunny it's going to be sixty two sixty three needs to be focused and we have a lot of precedent for customer model until the industry insurance credit unions or any models that work they get a vote and they can force the company change from the inside well exactly that to a customer owned model is right i mean that if we all have a stake in this editor chief reporter for the wall street journal and ted nord house of the breakthrough institute in oakland we asked if you had been affected by any of these outages here is some of what you left in our in in california and in snohomish county the kincaid has been really knocked back firefighters have done an amazing job considering the the really extreme unprecedented fire as part of just life in california shifting somehow is is changing now that these fires are so much more frequent i think it is today it's just rather surreal given the lack of anything that looks like a fire it's just a strange moment in time men in the attack tweeted in wine country to report on the fire that's burning beards known as the kincaid fire how is that going it's going pretty well considering the history of fires ndi weather that they've seen so i think i'd i urge a sense of scale when we're talking about these fires that this year at least so far we've been quite lucky with proposition thirteen where do they think funds for preventive maintenance come from the great pumpkin russell that's a little snarky but we should be clear proposition thirteen that will happen sooner or later i know you've lived in california for more than thirty years i'm sorry to say that your own father's house burned down lead in the seventies is this concept of i use the internet nothing is open gas lines have formed at the gas stations roundtables to contact anybody and the event of a medical emergency i think they're you know they're just creating more west into the conversation also in oakland is susie cagle a climate and energy report with the guardian US susan welcome good to be here you recently went to sonoma's county native americans burned the land for thirteen thousand ten thousand years before before california was was colonized and and made a part of on this stuff is just not tenable patrick writes i'd feel sorry you're for californians if they had an incapacitated their public sector forty plus years ago i think when we when we think about and talk about fire in california we have to consider that fire was here long before any of us were here this is a fire adapted landscape responsibility of california's government to deal with clearing vegetation to fund infrastructure maintenance etc well on the the other perspective though is that a lot of what is causing these fires or these are very old these are some of the oldest transmission lines in the country we fires and wildfires are kind of part of the the life in northern california's was things you just kind of it's kind of like earthquakes it's just one of those things you have to sort of accept that gene is kind of a third rail in california politics that change the way that property taxes are portion but i understand where patrick is coming from how much is this i am i able to tell my employer not working because i did not upgrade my car for winter weather interesting point we'll get some more of your points and just a bit but first let's bring one morgan power from the regulated utility so PG ni does not have a choice to say you know what we think that's pretty dangerous to put a lineup up this this is one a. i'm joshua johnson fox this is catherine i'm calling from the santa cruz mountains dishes bob calling from mendocino names chess from app toss they just shut our power the united states and then fire was suppressed we stopped burning the land but the land wants to burn and we want to live here so we have to find a way to coexist with road to to connect your house they don't really have a choice so on the one hand there is the government is saying you know PG has to continue building new power lines NPR's this is one a. i'm joshua johnson we're talking about the fires and power outages in california with russell gold senior accountable for the business interruption and costs associated with these blackouts and we will do the same with the other two investor owned utilities in southern in terms of keeping the equipment upgraded and and to to do everything that's possible to prevent these fires especially over the last few years when it's b for over forty eight hours for the last three days for a total of seven to eight eight there's no cold storage we can't charge our phones we can't i'm clear after the drought that started in california twenty twelve just how much of a tinderbox northern california really had become let's play another clip this is california's governor one hand the california governments made it very clear that if you move out into a rural part of sonoma's rural part of of any of this year nevada you can get a power line you can get here and obviously the way that we're doing right now are not working we're moving further into the wildland areas or building power lines across really rugged terrain avenue som talking about PGE which he accused of in his words years and years of mismanagement is part of what governor newsom said they simply did do their job it took us decades to get here but we will get out of this mess we will hold them to an account that they've never been held in the past and that's a responsibility for both PG knee and the state regulator you know PG and he gets they don't they are a private company but there are regular company into one that gets better arrest mir sample cardo of san jose california mr mayor i appreciate you making time for us hope that y'all newsouth based we'll do everything in our power to restructure genie so it is a completely different entity when they get out of bankruptcy by june thirtieth of next year we will hold them it's all the the build out of transmission lines up in this year nevada's was one of the first long distance transmission lines we built in the united states and they need to be maintained a utility they have to go to the regulator and say we want to spend money on this can you approve it in state regularly we'll look at it and say okay we think that's a reasonable expenditure will allow view to to charge a rate payers customers for it so it's really both the company and the the the the regulator who share some responsibility here california that's california governor gavin newsom suzy cable what is your sense of how people on the ground feel about who is to blame who should be held accountable i'm sure PG any is not looking very popular right now but is there anyone else that folks you've talked to your pointing to people are i think a little frustrated don well clearly in an era where failed utility line can start a eighty thousand acre fire that's not really a choice that but you know at the at the sonoma's county fairgrounds in santa rosa where people you know thousands of people had been evacuated from their homes there was a link called the black saturday fire and they really aggressively thought about their transmission in their electrical system after that made some pretty substantial changes that certainly a place that with with being out of their homes for days at a time they're facing down fire yet again in a few years this is this is california gallows humor dealing with their infrastructure particularly with climate change is a factor it's a great question look we talk about climate change as if if the utility doesn't take a more aggressive approach to understanding the risks face they face you know the rest of the pacific northwest is a very heavily forested area i mean what we're seeing in northern california could easily spread up the coast into oregon and washington and we've seen some wildfires in tennessee business folks out in their trucks have been attacked and in various places and that's particularly disturbing i haven't heard any anyone expressing any of that kind of sentiment the different areas affected earlier and some areas you know might might not be as effective as much and it's clear california is sort of a front line it is in our conversation they did not make themselves available but that invitation stance russell is this something that's unique to p. jeannie how are other utility companies okay clearly PG knee faces some unique situations in terms of deferred and delayed maintenance on their lines but there's i have not seen anything that suggests the entire climate of the earth is going to sort of change in lockstep you know it's a three degree temperature rise in everyone's gonna raise three degrees and that's just not true we're going to see yes that that there aren't other utilities out there that have also made the same choices you know let's run to failure run to failure some of our lines and when they break down we'll fix a gallon berg almost was was threatened with a pretty massive wildfire a couple of years ago and that's something that we haven't seen in the past so i don't think people out in in california especially who are experiencing these blackouts is directed directly at at PG any i know there've been some reports that PGE line workers in these trying circumstances throwing them off a what i you know the this gallows humor folks are are dealing the choice probably should need to be taken off the table and we've seen this elsewhere in australia they've had some tremendous bushfires that going back into two thousand nine there was one the sort of arid west wildfires are big issue you know in the south east and other parts of the country salt water intrusion flooding rising did to the to the wildfire problem so in some ways you look at PG knee and it's a canary it's canary in the coal mine sort of showing us what can happen in other areas see discussion of throwing PG executives off of a high building in san francisco i'm and that's how people were having a making themselves feel a little better a little bit better in like the power grid we're not very good at maintaining infrastructure in the US and and really you know it's an interesting broader dynamic which is that ridden the san francisco bay area rapid transit recently will tell you that that's a mess so there is this broader infrastructure issue i think there's also mm sort of modern societies tend to be much better at building infrastructure initially than taking care of it and so you know if you look at it in that context the kind we've written about in in the journal and we've looked at to try to understand how other utilities are adjusting onto this new normal so russell is at anyone's job more broadly to close support for this podcast and the following message come from uber uber is committed to safety and rising sea levels things like that are issues and you know i i would make a couple of observations just one is that you know it's not just and now uber has introduced a brand new safety feature called ride check which attacked a trip goes unusually off course and check in to provide support to learn more keep their system up and running and if it starts failing then it becomes a problem but there's no one looking out ahead and sort of saying hey what else should we be doing what are the emerging threats and how should we be changing its climate is changing more rapidly than a lot of other areas and you know a have this this this tremendous drought and this massive tree die off which is folks trying to trying to just have a have a break in in the horror of of their current situation by the way we did invite PG to take part audience listen subscribe to shortwave from NPR back now to our discussion with other people find the show and don't forget you can catch the news roundup at the end of every week happy halloween married this week don't miss a special spooky batch of episodes keep utilities in line to make sure that they do take care of their infrastructure to smack 'em when they don't or is this just kind of ad hoc like how it does not have inspectors that will go out and look at these lines and oversee to see you know maybe we need to to get PG knee and others to to has mission lines are these these big transmission lines we just haven't funded that and so it really is up to PG and the grid operator to see of aging sort of decrepit grid that PGA has been sort of overseeing and and not taking care of there are simple and more expensive ways to to respond one of the things that PG is doing is for instance or something spend more money on this they're not looking at that it's why why why aren't they looking it's just the way the the the the federal laws written the federal law continuously raising the bar to help make safer journeys for everyone verse starters all drivers are background checked before their first ride and screened on an ongoing basis NPR's new daily science podcast shortwave we're going to talk about parasites that take over in control the brains of their hosts such like a podcast does too on a larger scale yeah that's a great question and you know as i was reporting on this earlier i was sort of stunned because the answer was no really wasn't anyone's particular response here's the likely to be responsible for the current can kate fire those are actually overseen by the federal government and for which is the with the federal energy regulatory commission fixing this power grid is going to take ten years probably and billions of dollars it can be done but it's going to be really different gives a lot of money to to oversee dams for instance and they've got a a large number of people who go out and inspect dams they don't have that to go out and oversee these interstate this is actually kind of consistent with all sorts of other things that are going on from water systems to roads to you know take a you know anyone who has talk with regards to those threats i mean what about things like flood risk or saltwater intrusion those bigger threats in some places well yeah i mean obviously especially auber commitment to safety visit uber dot com slash safety hey there it's joshua thanks for listening to a podcast please take a moment to subscribe and leave us a rating that helps three the lines jeremy agreed jeremy rights wire power lines still suspended up in the treetops anyway wouldn't it be more practical to have them in the ground near the road we closer when a when a power line false off when it when it stops unexpectedly normally they'll send a pulse down basically say hey can we restart it's like we starting your are these blackouts part of a long term solution a no i think politically that this is not a long-term solution very big investment and right now california and PG and e. has not made that investment to date they could sibility th the big transmission lines these high voltage lines backbone of the grid that was responsible a failure one of these lines was responsible for the campfire and alien PGA can't pay of course because they have no assets left we mentioned there in chapter eleven bankruptcy the broader question is how to pay for all climate damage i suggest carbon used to do it but it's just gonna cost money speaking of infrastructure we've gotten a bunch of questions to the effect of what weller jeremy asked weller tweeted why not bear roads instead of in the danger zone in fire prone areas why do we still do it like it has always been done ted what about that what about burying the power lines meaning they don't use the closers they don't send the pulse down now that took a little technology it was a fairly simple fix but you know in general the fact that that was a power line them DWP and said i want to talk more about how we maintain those power lines and insulate them in hardened them for the future in a minute an important distinction which is like yeah PGE maybe they were greedy profit-driven but you know the tick fire in southern california no one talks in densely populated areas but the cost per mile of burying powerlines out in sort of rural areas where a lot of these fires are starting her well if the lines on the ground you're send a pulse of electricity through it that that can cause a fire so one of the things that PG now does they during high fire tom term kind of permanent fixes is gonna take a long time and and a lot of money yes suzie i wanted to ask you about that adaptation as well particularly with another within home depot something on lawn chairs and just kind of camped out and it turned out they were all waiting to purchase generators and what was amazing to me was going to home depot on sunday evening and finding about forty five people in line would be just sort of extraordinary so i i don't think that's going to happen but i think russells point is a good line which is that and fees and when the by the way that fifty billion dollar figure we can't corroborate it last year's fire season cost twenty four billion but russell i do see john's point i mean voicemail from a listener in california here's what miriam had to say if there's mary-anne calling on the santa cruz mountains we're just about twenty five minutes from santa cruz encasing them in kind of some sort of fireproof tube not just kind of sitting on the ground but burying them so they're not up in the tree tops in some places that might make sense but gold of the wall street journal suzy kale of the guardian US and ted north house of the breakthrough institute john rights with this year's fire the cost will exceed fifty oh and the you know if you're going to have people going out there every year or two climbing the lines inspecting them making sure all the hardware appears to be in good shape that's going to be there's a lot we can do with that infrastructure and technology to better monitor it to better understand when lines are down to not have to you know right now other ways that you're finding people adjusting to what might be the new normal in california i mean i think you know it certainly looks different for people with money than for people who don't power shut offs are a kind of adaptation to so you put all that together and i think we are kind of finding ways to manage this but you know along have money there are a number of people who are installing solar in storage power walls and batteries in their homes so that well not i've spent a decent amount of time this year out in the feather river canyon up above paradise where the campfire started these transmission lines are really hard to get to of cases so i think that i think that after these blackouts were going to see a huge jump in that they know elon musk was tweeting that he's going to give people discounts if the that were coming in on a truck that they've been waiting for stomach many is like five hours while miriam thank you for sharing that with a susie what are some of the in blackout areas but that's something that's just completely out of reach for for a lot of people who are in in these blackout areas especially in places like what unquote ted do we reach a point where push meets shove and people may not have to evacuate california on mass but people might just have to accept like yet are completely upended to the point that you made elon musk did tweet a few days ago that for people who are directly affected by wildfire power outages and sort of increase understanding fire risk and i think there's a lot of people who are literally unable to ensure their homes now and i think we're gonna see more of that on tourism especially especially in the fall so i think that we're we're a long way from figuring out exactly how to adapt and and to do that across the entire state would be extraordinarily expensive like really into the trillions of dollars and that might make sense in sort of doc these lines with literally without literally having to send people out to look at them so i think there's a bunch of things that are happening i think there's a bunch of adaptation i mean that by page osborne and edited by miranda full more to learn more about our team visit the one a dot ORG this program comes to you from w. AMU part of american al before they can re power lines after the shut offs genie has to go out and literally physically inspect them and i think we're probably going to sort of develop better ways to inspire that lasts for days and and is is completely untenable people are out of work that kids aren't in school on their their lives are the power goes off they're prepared for something like this but of course that's a system that costs tens of

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