With Great Power Comes Large Shutoffs
October 9, 2019 6:22 AM   Subscribe

According to PG&E (California's largest power company) "for public safety, it may be necessary for us to turn off electricity when gusty winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk, are forecasted. This is called a 'Public Safety Power Shutoff' or 'PSPS'" and they have done that several times in California over the last couple of years. Today PG&E plans to turn off power for nearly 800,000 customers, and the power may stay off for as long as five days.
posted by Frayed Knot (180 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not that PG&E's website has been up and down since about Noon yesterday. That first link may not work sometimes.
posted by Frayed Knot at 6:23 AM on October 9


The SF Chronicle has its own map of the planned outages that should work when PG&E's doesn't.
posted by skymt at 6:41 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass explains how the same wind conditions and energized power lines in Northern California caused major fires in 2018 and 2017, and the weather situation this week.
posted by mbrubeck at 6:50 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


Just got an email from my 80 year old father-in-law saying that their power is going to be cut for at least two days. This is not good.
posted by octothorpe at 6:51 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I’ve been following this on Twitter for the last while, and there’s a good amount of thought along the lines the PG&E is doing this as a combination of lashing out at being found liable for last years fires and having skimped on safety costs while boosting exec pay for so long that their solution is to cut the power rather than do the work (and spend the money) to make things better.

It’s about time the “public utilities should be publicly owned” idea gets a lot more traction (The Whelk has been opening my eyes to that, so thanks for that”
posted by Ghidorah at 6:56 AM on October 9 [91 favorites]


800k customers = 2.2 million people (according to various estimates).
posted by notyou at 7:03 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


Thanks for putting this up!

We're so far not planned to lose power in my area (I guess we are city/flatland enough to not be considered to be trouble), but some of my friends live on the outskirts/boonies and are losing theirs and some entire towns are supposed to be blacked out. I'm pretty concerned. I went through a 48 hour blackout once during a horrible storm season, but five damn days? Just so they can manually inspect the lines for days is what I read somewhere about why it will take so long.

PG&E Twitter seems to be usually working when their website isn't, as is PGE Currents.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:06 AM on October 9




If I worked for Tesla's home battery solutions or a solar panel company, I would be promoting the hell out of my services. I would ask my clients in the power outage areas to talk about why they're happy they installed solar and how they're not suffering the power cuts. I would paper Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with my ads. Because people will definitely be using their mobile phones while this goes on.
posted by rednikki at 7:11 AM on October 9 [23 favorites]


A publicly owner power utility will not prevent you from being mad at it sometimes. We have one, they still do boneheaded things. But at least it has to answer to some authority other than shareholders.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 7:18 AM on October 9 [21 favorites]


Sitting in my California living room like, thanks to my municipally-owned electric utility.

(What's the state-level word for "nationalize?")
posted by entropicamericana at 7:24 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


My neighborhood has its power lines buried. More expensive to do, but absolutely worth it in the long run. We have never lost power at our house, except when they shut it off on purpose a couple years ago to do some work.* And of course they don't set fires.

Perhaps if PG&E doesn't want to spend the money to bury theirs, California should classify above ground power lines as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance. The legal latitude that would grant them is truly amazing. A sentence of several million years in jail for anyone remotely connected to PG&E, along with confiscation of all their assets, would probably make them think.


* And then they sent around a letter giving us a date when it would be shut down, missed that date, sent around a second letter with a makeup date when they'd do the work, missed that date, and then suddenly shut us off one day a couple weeks later with no warning, so we kind of got the sudden blackout experience.
posted by Naberius at 7:26 AM on October 9 [18 favorites]


You know what's "not good"? Your house and all your neighbors' houses burned to the ground. What difference will having the power on or off at that point make?

The reaction to this is so strange. The mayor of Oakland called it "unacceptable". Do you think they're doing this for shits and giggles?

Fuck people.
posted by humboldt32 at 7:30 AM on October 9 [5 favorites]


What about like

people with respirators and shit
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:34 AM on October 9 [35 favorites]


Do you think they're doing this for shits and giggles?

They're doing this because they've neglected to maintain their own hardware, in favor of shareholder profits. This is what people are angry about, and this is why as of today, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

And they deserve to be damned both ways because of corporate malfeasance. The state should take ownership and void the stocks. All of them. Market cap evaporated at the stroke of a pen. The execs caused this because the shareholders let them. Fuck PG&E executives, and the ones that came before them.
posted by tclark at 7:34 AM on October 9 [129 favorites]


Lots of folks on Twitter worried about:

a. older people and disabled people who need powered devices/will get cut off
b. diabetic folks or other folks who need to keep meds refrigerated
posted by emjaybee at 7:35 AM on October 9 [22 favorites]


Perhaps my impression is colored by growing up in a part of SoCal that had day-long power outages several times a year. . . but, this doesn't seem unreasonable. If the state and the nation aren't going to invest in infrastructure and privatize utilities with wild abandon, well-meaning people at utility companies do what they can to avoid crises.

Five days, though, is a lot. Two days at a time, with a day in between, with rotations, would be a lot easier for people who own refrigerators. Taking a 1/5 chance of a regional fire and not having to throw out all of your food seems like a more reasonable choice to me. (Personally, I'd argue that the Caldecott Tunnel is ten pages down on the list of things worth keeping open. But, that's probably not good public policy.)
posted by eotvos at 7:37 AM on October 9




Yes, I think they are in fact doing this for shits and giggles. I'm very much in the camp that PG&E is doing this as a pay back after being held responsible for years of shitty maintenance and piss poor planning.

Diablo winds are real, without a doubt. The risk of fire is higher today and tomorrow than it has been, without a doubt. But turning off power for 5 days for 2.2 million people is not a reasonable response to that elevated risk.
posted by Frayed Knot at 7:38 AM on October 9 [19 favorites]


The natural reaction of the uninformed internet butthead (referring to myself) might be "why don't they bury the power lines?" I know buried lines are more expensive, but in a fire-happy socialist (for certain values of socialist) state like California, you'd think they'd be packing on the dirt. How much more expensive, or what are the institutional barriers to doing so?
posted by saysthis at 7:39 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I'm not totally convinced but I do think, like Frayed Knot, this has a stink of Blue Flu about it.

"Oh you want to hold us cops accountable and to stop shooting unarmed kids? *cough cough* Nice city you have here, shame if we all got sick at once."
posted by tclark at 7:40 AM on October 9 [32 favorites]


I have no doubts this is payback, especially with a company that has a body count like PG&E's (even just from wildfires). It's only going to get worse from here, considering that the federal government will refuse to do anything but accelerate deregulation, and I expect we'll see more utilities that operate as de facto monopolies pulling this shit very soon.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:47 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


I had an interesting conversation with an out-of-state hotshot crew of electrical linemen the other day who were hired by PG&E to replace a couple of unstable utility poles. They were contractors flown in from Arizona, where they say undergrounding of wires is not universal but more common. They had a couple of cautionary notes about undergrounding:
- it's incredibly difficult and expensive to retrofit in established urban areas
- even once installed, it's orders of magnitude more expensive for the utility to make repairs
- it's orders of magnitude more expensive for individual customers to order new services to be run from the trunk line to their homes
posted by PhineasGage at 7:55 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


Considering the absolute horror of the last few fire seasons up here, I'm all in favor of anything that might make this the year where none of my friends or family loses their home.
posted by prize bull octorok at 7:57 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


So, uh, are they doing anything to help those who have home dialysis machines and the like? If the same weather conditions happened in 2017 and 2018, it seems like they should at least have time to think of a contingency plan.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:58 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


God do I hate PG&E. Let's not forget the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people. State reports found that PG&E had funneled the money for pipeline maintenance into executive & stockholder compensation:
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. diverted more than $100 million in gas safety and operations money collected from customers over a 15-year period and spent it for other purposes, including profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives, according to a pair of state-ordered reports released Thursday.
I hope a multi-day blackout affecting millions of people will create some real political pressure to do something about PG&E, but PG&E famously has a lot of pull in Sacramento as one of the biggest lobbyists in the state. I'm not optimistic.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:02 AM on October 9 [40 favorites]


Look at the maps of the shut down areas, note that in the center of the red (shut down) there is a little blue area that is not shut down. That is Sacramento home of of Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). Yeah for municipal power!
I think that the shut down is a ploy to get immunity from damages.
posted by shnarg at 8:02 AM on October 9 [12 favorites]


PG&E needs to bury their lines and when they do it will be a huge undertaking. They've got 106,681 circuit miles of electric distribution lines and 18,466 circuit miles of interconnected transmission lines.

What they were doing back when I contracted to them in 2014 to maintain the line safety was flying a helicopter over the lines, recording video, paying many people to watch the videos, figure out what areas where at most risk for a tree falling on the line, sending a ground crew out to confirm, and then sending a team out to deal with the problem. It could take months. If no one could agree on where the issues were they'd send a people out in another helicopter to fly to those spots to get a better view.

I used to survey for them before they did tree trimming for environmental issues and some of the lines are up in remote areas on the Sierra Nevada mountains. Normally when you survey lines there is an access road you can follow, but not when the lines were installed by crew that were airlifted in and out. Since we weren't important enough to be airlifted in some days we'd spend 8 hours working our way to view a mile of line. Not a lot of thought went into how these things would be maintained.
posted by lepus at 8:07 AM on October 9 [23 favorites]


Aside from corporate malfeasance, power outages of this sort will be an ongoing consequence of the worsening climate crisis and the ensuing weather extremes. It is unfortunate that this is not currently part of the discussion about what to do with critical services, and it will likely get tabled only when it is too late to do much about it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:11 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


My neighborhood has its power lines buried. More expensive to do, but absolutely worth it in the long run. We have never lost power at our house...

My suburban development has buried power lines, too, but the very high voltage, high capacity distribution lines that bring electricity to the neighborhood are not buried, and as far as I know, generally cannot be.

Also, our buried-line power goes out (because of equipment failures, traffic accidents, weather problems, maintenance work etc.) all the time. I've never been warned even once, even when the workers shutting me down were right next door, literally within shouting distance.

It's not crazy to suppose that burying the power lines might be some kind of silver bullet, but it turns out not to be the case. If you enjoy reliable service, it's the result of a lot more than that.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:26 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Um, it can be all of the above, everyone.

- poorly maintained infrastructure
- a "fuck you" to customers/oversight for finding they didn't do enough to prevent some massive fires

AND

- an effort to prevent another massive fire
posted by booooooze at 8:28 AM on October 9 [8 favorites]


Of course it is all those things. But one of those came first, and caused the other two.
posted by tclark at 8:32 AM on October 9 [18 favorites]


So, uh, are they doing anything to help those who have home dialysis machines and the like?

Same question. He doesn't live in California, but my father's on at-home dialysis and he'd be dead in 5 days. Or at least he'd wish he was. Is "buy a generator" the official recommendation?
posted by penduluum at 8:34 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


As a note on Solar, generally grid tied solar does not work during a power outage. Storage and extra hardware is needed to make that work.

So maybe Tesla with a Powerwall could use this as a selling point but it isn't a selling point for a typical system.
posted by jclarkin at 8:38 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


and as far as I know, generally cannot be.

There’s a mile or so of buried 400 kV line that starts not far from my house. You can do it, it’s just much more expensive to do. (I believe, but don’t actually know, that this cable was buried for aesthetic reasons.) You have to accept higher transmission losses due to (IIRC) capacitive coupling with the ground being much greater for a buried cable than for one suspended from pylons. It’s not just the (huge) difference in installation & maintenance cost.
posted by pharm at 8:40 AM on October 9 [5 favorites]


That they didn't shore up their website capacity in anticipation of this adds some insult to injury. I'm guessing their infrastructure on that front has been underfunded too.
posted by treepour at 8:49 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


What I wondered when I first heard this was is it possible that the damage by not having power on will be worse in terms of risk weighted results than leaving the power on and having the occasional huge fire. I wondered how many people might die of things like CO poisoning or prosaic trips and falls in the dark.
posted by Pembquist at 8:53 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I also have a municipal power company and there aren't any shutoffs likely for me, however my power company did say that if certain transmission lines they use but do not own get shut down, we might be without power for a bit. However, I work for a park district on the peninsula and got the day off because they didn't want people having to commute during this time.

I understand the need to prevent fires - I've studied fire ecology and I grew up in San Diego County and my mom lost her home there to a fire. But a lot of this is PG&E's fault for not doing the maintenance they should have been doing all along and that's what is infuriating.
posted by primalux at 8:56 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


As a note on Solar, generally grid tied solar does not work during a power outage. Storage and extra hardware is needed to make that work.

So maybe Tesla with a Powerwall could use this as a selling point but it isn't a selling point for a typical system.


Maybe not the typical systems currently in use for grids, but we could start slapping solar panels on every building with southern exposure and take down god knows how many of these lines in the process.

It wouldn't fix everything, but waiting for perfection will only get us more blackouts, more wildfires, and more carbon emissions.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:11 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


Though three guys got a Nobel prize for inventing the lithium-ion battery today, I don’t think I would want a big block of these in my house to backup my electricity given their propensity to burst into flames all by themselves.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:12 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Interesting factoids about the feasibility of undergrounding power lines (albeit 10+ year old data):

Burying power lines costs roughly US$1 million per mile, but the geography or population density of the service area can halve this cost or triple it. The effect of undergrounding on a customer's utility bill depends on the characteristics of each unique project. A few examples show a range of effects:
- A 2010 study assessing undergrounding options requested by the District of Columbia Public Utility Commission noted that burying all overhead equipment would cost $5.8 billion. A local utility official later stated this would add $226 to the average monthly bill over 10 years, or $107 per month for 30 years.
- After a series of storms, North Carolina investigated the costs of undergrounding the state's distribution infrastructure and found it would raise electric rates by over 125%.
- Anaheim, California, decided to completely convert its system for aesthetic reasons. To minimize the impact on customer bills, undergrounding is taking place slowly over a period of 50 years, funded by a 4% surcharge on electric bills.
posted by prinado at 9:16 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


We looked into the "tie solar power into your house so you can cut over to it in an outage" scenario, and it's a significant undertaking. You need a special circuit breaker that lets you cut cleanly between utility power and local power. Solar is doubly tough because you need major battery investments to tide you over at night if you want to maintain something like a refrigerator. It was looking like 10-20k to get panels, a battery, and the electrical work. Propane-based generators are much more straightforward and efficient in terms of energy density since you can store the fuel stably for long periods of time. But obviously they're noisy and polluting so it's a solution for you at the expense of the people around you to some degree. But it's like 10% the price to get the same sustained power output.

That's all to say that the answer is not simply "we all need local backups." There's a reason we build infrastructure—it's way more efficient than everyone maintaining their own local systems. If we have to live in a world where we can't trust that system, it's bad all the way down. Solar panels on roofs or generators are not a good world to be in.
posted by heresiarch at 9:22 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


Undergrounding transmission isn't the solution to this problem. Maintaining the right of way to prevent vegetation encroachment and maintaining the safety systems on those lines so that they don't start a fire if they fail is a much better answer.

Underground transmission lines not only waste a lot of energy, but also have lower carrying capacity per unit of resource used to install them, and are far less flexible in emergency situations. If you have a clear right of way and a dire emergency, you can just let the overhead lines sag and run them far beyond design capacity as a temporary measure. Try and do that with an underground line and you'll burn off the insulation and make the whole thing useless.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with California's grid is that temporary measures have often become permanent, further increasing the risk brought on by lack of regular maintenance. It does make a certain amount of economic sense, given the expectation that the usage of those lines will decrease over time, but it's still stupid when considering the whole picture.
posted by wierdo at 9:23 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


(Disclaimer: I spent the last ~2 years consulting with PG&E specifically around wildfire risk reduction data analytics. I make no comment on corporate malfeasance as that was well above my pay grade.)

This actually isn't the first time PG&E is shutting off power as part of a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) - they conducted 2 last year (October and November), their first ever. They also conducted one already this year in June. San Diego Gas and Electric was the first to conduct one in the state, before PG&E. This year it is likely that all 3 major power providers (PG&E, SDG&E, and Southern California Edison) will conduct PSPS events.

Whenever a major power provider pro-actively shuts down the grid in advance of a high wind event, it costs them a lot of money. First off, they aren't transmitting electricity, so they lose massive revenue for every minute it is shut down. Secondly, they have extensive internal programs, teams, and procedures that must be enacted before, during, and after a shutdown event. They work with state and local agencies on contingency plans for critical facilities (hospitals, tunnels, BART, etc.). These procedures include customer contact down to individual customer levels in affected areas, no small undertaking.

PG&E maintains one of the most advanced meteorology operations in the world, to be able to track wind events down to a square-meter (yes, meter) level. In addition to partnership with many public and private meteorology data gathering operations, they now have a growing network of hundreds of weather stations installed on their own power poles / towers, all gathering real-time weather data that they augment to provide extremely detailed forecasts across the state. In advance of a high wind event, the utility providers will spin up an Emergency Operations Center - pulling in FTE staff that are on-call on a given day in advance of the event, people from all of their lines of business, who begin to staff the center 24/7 from 72 hours pre-shutdown until the all-clear has been declared post-shutdown.

Because thousands and perhaps approaching tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines will be shut down, PG&E and its subsidiary contractors must visually inspect ever mile of line that was shut down, to ensure that wind did not cause a line-down event. Only after the full visual inspection of all affected lines takes place, and any required repair work takes place, can they safely fully re-energize. This too is a massive undertaking, in an incredibly short amount of time.

They currently maintain an Wildfire Safety Operations Center that tracks live data feeds from CHP, Calfire, and many other state and local resources, reporting in real time (internally) on every fire in the state that is larger than 3x3m, 24/7/365. Just staffing this and enabling it with the technology they require to operate it is a massive undertaking in and of itself.

After re-energization, the utility provider must file a detailed report with the CPUC about the de-energization event. These reports, typically between 20-50 pages, are all publicly available here.

PG&E's websites get absolutely hammered with customer traffic leading up to and during these events. Similar to levels experienced in targeted Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks, but with real actual traffic. So many of their pages will experience long load times or complete inaccessibility for customers. They also seem to have drastically cut back on the amount of information they make publicly available on their website (I can only assume due to legal risk related to wildfires, as well as all of the lawsuits they will face over PSPS events). Fortunately, a lot of information is accessible online via the CPUC and other local authorities.

Here's more information on PG&E's power shutoffs.

And the CPUC's wildfire page.

And a good reference for people in south bay (Santa Clara County, San Jose) who may be affected by the PSPS.


Say what you will of their mis-management over the decades, but I can say from internal experience that they are wildly focused on safety at all levels, internally and externally. I was at corporate and every meeting that had more than 3 people started with a safety briefing where we reviewed who would lead incident response, who would perform CPR, who would get the AED, who would meet and greet emergency services, how and where to we would evacuate in the event of an emergency, what to do in the event of an earthquake, and what to do in the event of an active shooter. Safety for employees, contractors, and communities was at the heart of all they did, at least from a day-to-day operational level.

Issues of whether they didn't do as much as they could have maintenance wise, and how much that was affected by trying to run a profitable business for shareholders, is definitely the purview of many opinion columns. They turned over the CEO and most of the board and senior officer level in the last year over this.

The scope of this problem is fucking massive and goes way bigger than just one power company. Cities and towns in Northern California have been practically subsidizing people building their homes out into forested high fire threat areas for decades now. The US as a whole has pretty much had a policy of preventing fires and fighting them when they do occur, which has lead to massive accumulations of dead vegetation fire fuel in many areas, causing the fires to burn hotter and spread faster when they do occur.

Undergrounding lines is a possible solution but doing so at the scale of PG&E would cost much more than they have ever been worth publicly as a company, let alone all of the wildfire liability they are now in bankruptcy (again) over. The 2017 fires liability alone were higher than PG&E's total valuation at their peak stock price, and that doesn't even cover the 2018 fires. So you might as well talk about putting power on the moon as you would talk undergrounding their entire transmission network. And that's just transmission - their distribution network, which is orders of magnitude bigger, causes many more fires than transmission due to the fact that there are more line-down events in distribution than transmission.

I personally think this requires a state and/or federal solution. California has a model for this in the California Earthquake Authority - the state's reinsurance agent for homeowners insurance policies iun the state to include earthquake coverage. After the Loma Prieda quake, the feds had to help bail the insurance companies out so they didn't go under paying off all the homeowners' claims. The fed told the state to figure it out for next time because they wouldn't be stepping in. The state took over and set up an agency to deal with the risk. The fire one is a more complex and frequent problem than earthquakes (relatively speaking), but trying to pin the blame for this on just one company and some bad actors in the past is really blinders-on level thinking compared to how big this issue is.

Feel free to ping me with any specific questions. None of the information above is proprietary to PG&E and I'm happy to share more from my experience. There is a ton more work and active research they are involved in around how to mitigate wildfires (veg management, drone/LiDAR enhanced inspect/repair of transmission and distribution assets, etc.), how to respond if there is a wildfire (community egress studies, etc.).
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:30 AM on October 9 [118 favorites]


So, compared to the chance of power lines starting fires, how high is the chance that several million people suddenly forced to use generators and barbecue grills for their basic daily needs might start a few fires too?
posted by MrVisible at 9:36 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


So, compared to the chance of power lines starting fires, how high is the chance that several million people suddenly forced to use generators and barbecue grills for their basic daily needs might start a few fires too?

PG&E is actually incredibly concerned about this and other outage-related fire risks. They encourage the use of battery-powered light devices rather than candles, similar to other emergency events (like earthquakes) due to fire risk from gas line rupture.

Power Outage Safety Tips
- Use a cell phone or hard-wired phone. Cordless phones do not work without electricity.
- Use battery-operated flashlights, not candles, which pose a fire hazard.
- Unplug or turn off all electric and heat-producing appliances (e.g. air conditioners, washers and dryers, ovens, stoves, irons) to avoid overloading circuits. Overloaded circuits can be a fire hazard once power is restored.
- Unplug televisions and computers that were in use when the power went out.
- Leave a single lamp on to alert you when power returns.
- Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed, and place extra containers of ice inside to preserve food. A full freezer will remain colder longer.
- Notify your alarm company if you have an alarm system. Equipment can be affected by outages.
- Turn your appliances back on one at a time when conditions return to normal.
- Reset clocks, thermostats and other programmed equipment after power is restored.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:40 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


The maintenance they are skipping out on is not without controversy and without serious environmental impacts - to do it correctly, it would involve bulldozing a solid 150 ft wide path through forests to allow the lines to pass. When they do it poorly (generally) they deform and kill many trees on people's property in cities.

The optimal ecological and economic solution would probably be something like not running power lines through these areas at all.

This is also why most cities don't have many street trees - electical lines take presedence, above or below ground.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:42 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Why does this remind me of the way Enron messed with CA in 2000-2001?
posted by kokaku at 9:50 AM on October 9 [13 favorites]


As a side note, I feel really, really bad for the tens of thousands of well-intentioned PG&E employees who work REALLY FUCKING HARD day in and day out at their jobs to keep one of the largest power grids in the world up and safely running to service practically all of Northern California. A state which is one of the largest economies in the world, on it's own.

They are wildly dedicated to their jobs, and under massive attack every fucking day. Their IT security? Digital terrorist attacks pretty much constantly. Physical security? They've had facilities attacked again and again - I'm pretty sure the US government tries to limit how much press this gets.

And every armchair utility quarterback in the world sits around spewing their hate for this company, who yeah, have been responsible for a lot of terrible incidents. Do you think the guys who helped stand up one of the biggest drone operations in the world and worked for 6 months straight following the camp fire were responsible for the gas explosions in San Bruno? They aren't thinking about that, they're just working super hard to help prevent the next problem. And keep power running to everyone in the meantime. The call center gal in customer service that is going to get screamed at for days on end during this PSPS? Is it her fault that everyone decided Paradise was a nice place to live even though it only had one road going in and out of the community, causing a huge egress risk?

I don't want to come off as an apologist for anybody at PG&E. Certain senior level execs over the past few decades should definitely be held accountable for not speaking up on the massive risk the company was forced to create due to the nature of is financial public structuring. But there are a whole hell of a lot more people who are doing really hard fucking work and are woefully under-appreciated.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:54 AM on October 9 [29 favorites]


I'm very much in the camp that PG&E is doing this as a pay back after being held responsible for years of shitty maintenance and piss poor planning.

Sorry, but based on the years of internal exposure to the senior levels at which these massive decisions are being made, that's just patently false.

They designate a senior officer (SVP, reporting to the CEO, or the CEO himself) as responsible for making the call to enact a PSPS. This person of course wants to be as informed as possible with as much data as possible because PG&E will face massive public scrutiny and likely many lawsuits following a PSPS. Their job is literally on the line, and they are at a minimum going to have to testify before the CPUC. And this despite all they are doing to try to prepare the state for the eventuality that power being shut down to avoid a lines-down ignition event because that's really the only feasible short term solution.

The alternative your assumption would necessitate is that they leave the lines energized, the lines go down, cause an ignition, more people die and homes are lost to a wildfire, and then they face even more financial liability for the fires than they are already snowed under with. You could liquidate the entire company today and it wouldn't begin to pay for all the liability the state has let them be saddled with already. And then no one would be getting power for a very long time, rather than just a few days.

There is no one at PG&E that actually wants this problem, or that wants to shut the power off pro-actively. Their job could go away because of this. There's nobody left with a vendetta or grudge that is motivating the PSPS events. That's ridiculous.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:01 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


Re grid tied solar, there's a new generation of equipment coming that is going to deal with this kind of situation better. The Enphase IQ8 microinverter will be able to power loads offgrid without battery backup, of course only when the sun is shining. Looks like it will be much better than current "islanding inverters" that can kinds sorta power a single outlet. That's one of the major manufacturers, and it will apparently support this by default, so there will soon be a lot of homes with that capability. Expect continued improvement in this area, partly driven by events like this.
posted by joeyh at 10:01 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I used to survey for them before they did tree trimming for environmental issues and some of the lines are up in remote areas on the Sierra Nevada mountains. Normally when you survey lines there is an access road you can follow, but not when the lines were installed by crew that were airlifted in and out. Since we weren't important enough to be airlifted in some days we'd spend 8 hours working our way to view a mile of line. Not a lot of thought went into how these things would be maintained.

I've been hearing that helicopters with trimming rigs have been used. I guess a fleet of them is more expensive then just shutting down the power lines.
posted by mikelieman at 10:08 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


We looked into the "tie solar power into your house so you can cut over to it in an outage" scenario, and it's a significant undertaking. You need a special circuit breaker that lets you cut cleanly between utility power and local power. Solar is doubly tough because you need major battery investments to tide you over at night if you want to maintain something like a refrigerator. It was looking like 10-20k to get panels, a battery, and the electrical work. Propane-based generators are much more straightforward and efficient in terms of energy density since you can store the fuel stably for long periods of time.

Well, you should be putting in the breaker / switch for a generator, solar or not. And in the bay area, you're talking about improvements that are sub 1 percent of the home value, so it's not much more unaffordable than having a home in the first place?
posted by pwnguin at 10:09 AM on October 9


Oakland here. My power is on... not sure if it will stay that way. PG&E has helpfully set up a station for people to stay cool, charge their devices, etc. ... in a remote location high in the Oakland hills that is just barely accessible without a car. (Planned shutoffs extend way down into East Oakland; they aren't only affecting people who already live in car-dependent areas.)

What I wondered when I first heard this was is it possible that the damage by not having power on will be worse in terms of risk weighted results than leaving the power on and having the occasional huge fire. I wondered how many people might die of things like CO poisoning or prosaic trips and falls in the dark.

Or fires started by candles, generators, camp stoves and grills, as pointed out above. Honest question: has anyone shown their work that these shutoffs actually increase net public safety, as opposed to just moving the liability off PG&E's books?

PG&E's websites get absolutely hammered with customer traffic leading up to and during these events. Similar to levels experienced in targeted Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks, but with real actual traffic. So many of their pages will experience long load times or complete inaccessibility for customers.

That's a poor excuse. A site whose purpose is to distribute information during a (quasi-)emergency should be designed to handle the traffic that (quasi-)emergencies will predictably generate. (Luckily, this information seems to be pretty well-mirrored by news sites, though I'm sure a lot of what's being reported is not up to date.)
posted by aws17576 at 10:17 AM on October 9 [7 favorites]


Is there a theater company in the affected area who may be interested in mounting something? The Federal Theater Project work Power may be especially timely.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:17 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


Automatic Transfer Switch is the phrase some people are searching for.

Thanks to allkindsoftime for spending all kinds of time teaching us a few things.

As for maintenance, perhaps the Superfund model is appropriate. If the company doesn't maintain public safety, the government steps in, does the work, and liens the equipment.
posted by hypnogogue at 10:19 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


They're doing this because they've neglected to maintain their own hardware, in favor of shareholder profits. This is what people are angry about, and this is why as of today, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

And they deserve to be damned both ways because of corporate malfeasance. The state should take ownership and void the stocks. All of them. Market cap evaporated at the stroke of a pen. The execs caused this because the shareholders let them. Fuck PG&E executives, and the ones that came before them.


The shareholders didn't just "let them" - the fact that they're a shareholder-owned company means that the shareholders share every bit as much responsibility as the execs for demanding shareholder value at the expense of not doing sufficient maintenance/prevention work. As far as I'm concerned if you own PG&E stock, you're just as responsible for this as any exec. And the more you own, the more responsibility you share.

The wealthy elite that held the board and execs to making it a profitable company should bear the brunt of the public's anger. Until we start directing it at who's really responsible, nothing's going to change.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:19 AM on October 9 [11 favorites]


What I wondered when I first heard this was is it possible that the damage by not having power on will be worse in terms of risk weighted results than leaving the power on and having the occasional huge fire. I wondered how many people might die of things like CO poisoning or prosaic trips and falls in the dark.

Having experienced the great Eastern power outage in the early 2000's it is much worse than that. Traffic light and street lights will also be out. People driving will have to negotiate their way across intersections. Your transit card fails as the servers are down. You need cash for bus fare. All stores will shut down (POS systems won't work). Cash will be king. The only prepared food you will be able to buy will be from street vendors - in Ottawa they really quickly ran out of buns. People were buying and eating bunless hotdogs!

In the suburbs it was a BBQ fest as people starting cooking their refrigerated and frozen meat rather than having it go off. Smart homes? Now dumb homes. Cell phone networks start to fail as they lose power. Gas stations can't pump.

Cut power and you disable most of civilization's features.
posted by srboisvert at 10:22 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


The shareholders didn't just "let them" - the fact that they're a shareholder-owned company means that the shareholders share every bit as much responsibility as the execs for demanding shareholder value at the expense of not doing sufficient maintenance/prevention work.

A more succinct argument for re-regulation and/or a state takeover I will never hear...
posted by aws17576 at 10:25 AM on October 9 [19 favorites]


they have been doing just that throughout California all summer.

Mischaracterizing the scope of these events in the OP doesn't help foster a productive conversation about actual facts in the post, FWIW. If you follow the CPUC reporting links in my initial comment above you'll see that there was only one other PSPS event so far this year, in June.

it's not surprising to see people popping off with crazy talk about how PG&E execs are doing this to retaliate, when we start off with claims that differ wildly from actual publicly documented facts.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:37 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


Allkindsoftime, as someone who was raised in Paradise, and whose father lost his home, I would really appreciate it if you would not start blaming the people who lived there for their current trauma.

Your insights on the utility's workforce are illuminating, but I don't think it's helpful to gauge the misery of a call center rep by flattening the decades of decisions made by planners, legislators, and individual human beings, many of whom had limited economic means, into "everyone decided Paradise was a nice place to live." My neighbors were not fools.

Thank you.
posted by DeWalt_Russ at 10:38 AM on October 9 [13 favorites]


I don't want to come off as an apologist for anybody at PG&E. Certain senior level execs over the past few decades should definitely be held accountable for not speaking up on the massive risk the company was forced to create due to the nature of is financial public structuring. But there are a whole hell of a lot more people who are doing really hard fucking work and are woefully under-appreciated.

I think we (as in humans generally) have a really hard time accepting "and". Something deep within our brains forces us toward "or," despite the fact that reality simply does not work that way.

Individuals can all be working toward good outcomes and be part of a system that is nearly guaranteed to eventually produce tragedy. Technology has improved our lives in ways completely unfathomable to those who came before us and it often fails and kills people. Nearly everything is both good and bad; nearly nothing is completely good or bad.

Blame is often unproductive and it is sometimes a useful framework with which to evaluate events and actions. As much as I have come to viscerally despise its use, I would be foolish to contend that it is never an appropriate framework.
posted by wierdo at 10:55 AM on October 9 [9 favorites]


I would really appreciate it if you would not start blaming the people who lived there for their current trauma.

Alright, so who do you propose we blame then?

I'm not blaming just everyone who lived in Paradise. There's a whole host of other towns like Paradise that have similar high fire threat risks, who want their power to stay on so they don't lose the groceries in their fridge, but will sue PG&E if a wildfire started by one of their assets burns their house down. That's bullshit.

I'm a NorCal native too. I have friends who grew up in Paradise and lost their childhood homes. They know people who lost family members, not just houses. I've had this conversation with them - and I didn't call them or their friends and family fools, despite your insinuation that I think that.

As a California native - I'm blaming all of us for collectively letting this kind of thing happen. My own grandparents should not have found it so financially feasible to build a house outside of Nevada City. If and when a fire consumes that house, I'll still be saying the same thing. If people want to build in places that are going to burn, they should pay the premium for taking on that risk, not the state. And it's going to happen again - I'd bet my retirement there will be another Paradise, or 10, before we figure out solutions for the problem.

I pay my taxes and utility bills just like all the people of Paradise do. The difference is that many of them want PG&E and/or the state to pay for them to rebuild a home in a place that is scientifically proven to be at a high risk of burning down again. Why should I be forced to pay for that via taxes and/or increased utility bills because? I can't even afford a house in my home state, but I'm going to pay for other people's second or third houses because we collectively have ignored these problems for far too long.

I'm sorry if that's hard to hear, but shit needs to change.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:02 AM on October 9 [24 favorites]


The shareholders didn't just "let them" - the fact that they're a shareholder-owned company means that the shareholders share every bit as much responsibility as the execs for demanding shareholder value at the expense of not doing sufficient maintenance/prevention work.

That's actually not true. The public utility commission and public utilities various charters and laws allow the company to throw a nice big middle finger at their shareholders if they believe that the most profitable options available jeopardize safety.

The fact that the executives decided to accept unacceptable levels of risk is not the fault of the shareholders. It's the fault of the executives, who have exceptional protection against shareholder lawsuits because they're a public utility.
posted by tclark at 11:05 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


And if you want to start talking about limited economic means, please don't start with people who could afford to build and/or own a home in my home state where I'm in my 40's and still renting, and probably always will. There's a whole lot of us who know a lot more about limited economic means than that class of people.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:07 AM on October 9 [4 favorites]


allkindsoftime, thanks for all the info you've added. Your criticism of my language in the OP is fair, and I'll see if the mods are willing to change it.

I don't doubt the good faith of many of the folks who work at PG&E. My next door neighbor has worked in the PG&E IT department for decades. But PG&E the institution is broken in some very fundamental ways, as the investigation into the San Bruno fire quoted above shows. Pointing at how hard people work doesn't change that fact.
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:08 AM on October 9 [14 favorites]


My sister and a friend of mine work at Cal, which is (mostly?) without power today and possibly tomorrow. My friend works in campus health and was posting that the food pantry will be closed, so no food for poor and hungry students, I guess.

Apparently Cal has the yearly budget of "San Diego, San Jose, or Boston" and I wonder about the financial impact of a closure like this. Negative because they are closed for business and paying employees who aren't working, or positive because they're using a lot less power for a few days?
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 11:09 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


allkindsoftime: "I was at corporate and every meeting that had more than 3 people started with a safety briefing where we reviewed who would lead incident response, who would perform CPR, who would get the AED, who would meet and greet emergency services, how and where to we would evacuate in the event of an emergency, what to do in the event of an earthquake, and what to do in the event of an active shooter. Safety for employees, contractors, and communities was at the heart of all they did, at least from a day-to-day operational level."

I'm not surprised that people at PG&E's corporate headquarters are concerned about their personal safety in case of an emergency, but a) it is bonkers to begin *every* meeting with a safety briefing and b) I'm not sure concern for safety at PG&E headquarters really translates into concern for safety for the overall system.
posted by crazy with stars at 11:10 AM on October 9 [15 favorites]


Oh yeah, meant to say my sister's home is not in a shut-off zone and she's happy about that because she rents an apartment, so she can't install solar or get a generator or whatever.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 11:10 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


If you have a couple thousand dollars to spend, it's possible to keep a refrigerator and small electronics running indefinitely if cloud cover or smoke isn't an issue with a couple of folding panels and a big-ass battery. A bit more money will buy you the capacity to run a small window AC enough to keep a room cool as well.

Some rental situations would come with enough sunny space to make a system like that workable.
posted by wierdo at 11:23 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


Another vote for Powerwalls here. We had one of the first in Vermont and it kept most of our systems going for a day.

(We lost power about 1x/month. Above-ground lines in a forest atop a mountain)
posted by doctornemo at 11:24 AM on October 9


Allkindsoftime, thank you for clarifying whom you blame. It wasn't what I read in the comment I responded to.

I wasn't trying to cast you as an outsider to California's woes. Obviously I have a personal stake in Paradise. I also have friends who lost family members.

I also have experience at a utility. My experiences about the dedicated personnel are similar to yours. I have sympathy for the call reps.

We agree: things need to change on a broad scale.

We agree: there will be more Paradises before that truly happens.

That's all I got.
posted by DeWalt_Russ at 11:30 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


- Use a cell phone or hard-wired phone. Cordless phones do not work without electricity.

....though if you're a Verizon customer, they likely cut your copper phone line without asking the last time they came to your house, so a hard-wired phone won't work. *sad, monopolistic trombone*
posted by wenestvedt at 11:33 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


DeWalt_Russ, I'm sorry for being snarky in my reply. I guess I'm too close to this and it's too frustrating an issue for me, but that doesn't make being rude to other Mefites OK.

I guess we really are in this together. I just hate that there will have to be more Paradises.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:34 AM on October 9 [10 favorites]


If you have a couple thousand dollars to spend, it's possible to keep a refrigerator and small electronics running indefinitely if cloud cover or smoke isn't an issue with a couple of folding panels and a big-ass battery. A bit more money will buy you the capacity to run a small window AC enough to keep a room cool as well.

I'd be interested in knowing what I'd have to buy to accomplish this. Some kind of integrated charger/controller, battery, inverter and outlet panel unit?
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:36 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I've been hearing that helicopters with trimming rigs have been used. I guess a fleet of them is more expensive then just shutting down the power lines.

If the winds are blowing hard enough to knock down power lines, flying a helicopter dangling a twenty-foot chainsaw alongside those same lines might not be our better idea.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:36 AM on October 9 [3 favorites]


I think the comparison was meant to be to the cost of keeping them trimmed away from the lines all the time with these chopping choppers. Once the fire conditions are here it's too late for that.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:41 AM on October 9 [5 favorites]


I guess we really are in this together. I just hate that there will have to be more Paradises.

Favorited very hard!

Thank you for sharing your important perspective. These issues and challenges are massively complex, and this conversation is better with your insights.
posted by DeWalt_Russ at 11:52 AM on October 9 [6 favorites]


I think the comparison was meant to be to the cost of keeping them trimmed away from the lines all the time with these chopping choppers.

1. Google this to see pictures and visualize the number of trees.
2. Estimate how many miles of powerlines in northern CA alone that need to be trimmed in this manner.
3. Estimate the number of pilots qualified to do the work to get their daily capacity
4. Come up with an estimate that is decades worth of work
5. Realize that trees grow and this work needs to be done periodically.
6. Green New Deal?
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:00 PM on October 9 [4 favorites]


...with a couple of folding panels and a big-ass battery.

---

I'd be interested in knowing what I'd have to buy to accomplish this.


What weirdo is referring to is a simple solar panel setup connected to a battery array (think like a dozen car batteries, minimum), that then uses an inverter to convert the electricity stored as DC in your batteries to AC to power simple home electronics.

I had one of these when I lived overseas in countries where power supply failed on a weekly basis (Californians really think they have it bad losing it a few days a year). It should be noted that you don't have to have the solar panels to charge the battery array, you can connect it to your home electrical to charge when you are getting power from the grid, but then once you deplete it while the grid is down, if you don't have solar or another option to charge the batteries, you're OOL.

Naturally, Tesla is positioning to corner the market to sell setups to your average Joe consumer in the US.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:02 PM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Since we are talking about trimming trees from helicopters here, I wrote some about what comes before that step, here.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:04 PM on October 9 [7 favorites]


A quote I saw on the work Slack: "I don't think there are words for the level of irony for a situation in which, due to a risk of fire, everybody has to break out the candles." Which was then responded to with virtual candles.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:23 PM on October 9 [5 favorites]


Shorter PG&E: Who run Bartertown?
posted by vibrotronica at 12:56 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


The good news is that without power you can't see the hordes of tarantulas.
posted by jeather at 1:03 PM on October 9 [8 favorites]


RE Norcal tarantulas: Once while wandering through the Pinnacles National Park just south of the Bay Area I wondered if I was dehydrated enough to be hallucinating that the ground was moving. Nope. That was just a carpet of tarantulas. I still have the willies.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:02 PM on October 9 [9 favorites]


To amplify on allkindsoftime's point, basically all of California is a natural peril zone, between fires, floods and of course earthquakes, and now rising seas.

Decades ago we watched Malibu homeowners on the evening news, standing on the remaining bluff above where their house just slid into the Pacific, saying "Oh, we're going to rebuild - we love it here." The insurance system is the only way we're going to eventually change things: private insurers are increasingly refusing to cover homes in the most risky areas, and we need to get the state and federal governments to stop providing socialized irrational risk coverage.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:13 PM on October 9 [11 favorites]


As a side note, I feel really, really bad for the tens of thousands of well-intentioned PG&E employees who work REALLY FUCKING HARD day in and day out at their jobs to keep one of the largest power grids in the world up and safely running to service practically all of Northern California. A state which is one of the largest economies in the world, on it's own.

I wouldn't assume these folks all love/identify with the decisions made by their employer either, just saying. But yes, I'm sure most people don't really know what kind of work goes into something like this.
posted by atoxyl at 2:17 PM on October 9


I live in Santa Rosa and am a little surprised at all the grumbling. Even in the Press Democrat they interviewed locals who are not happy about the outage. When I think about my experience of being up at 2 AM, hearing propane tanks exploding while neighborhoods directly north were being wiped off the map, thick smoke everywhere, roads clogged — I'm not complaining about a power shutdown.

Though I do think a for-profit utility company leads to decisions that are not in the best interests of society.
posted by Standard Orange at 2:28 PM on October 9 [3 favorites]


If you live in California* and are potentially affected by a power shutdown, this would be a good time to review your earthquake/emergency preparedness situation.
5 days without power is a lot in the modern world, but in the event of a major earthquake, you could be without power for much, much longer.

If you can't cope with a loss of power when the surrounding infrastructure is intact, how well will you cope when the area around you is devastated and no new supplies are coming in?

Don't think of this as a giant inconvenience**, think of it as a dry-run for the Big One.
Do you have a plan for medicine that needs to be refrigerated? Does your neighbor have a CPAP machine they depend on?
Check your batteries, rotate your food supplies, know your escape routes.

* Or anywhere, really.
** Though it is.

posted by madajb at 2:30 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


What weirdo is referring to is a simple solar panel setup connected to a battery array (think like a dozen car batteries, minimum), that then uses an inverter to convert the electricity stored as DC in your batteries to AC to power simple home electronics.

Ah, yeah. It's the shelves full of car batteries that's the sticking point.

I have thought about running 12V home lighting on solar, but the cost savings didn't seem like it would amount to much over just replacing most of my bulbs with LEDs.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:36 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


If you can't cope with a loss of power when the surrounding infrastructure is intact, how well will you cope when the area around you is devastated and no new supplies are coming in?

The minute Trump was elected, I programmed regular disaster-prep reminders into my calendar. I reasoned that he was just evil enough to refuse to send federal disaster aid to the Bay Area if we had The Big One, and his subsequent responses to Hurricane Maria & the Paradise Fire have only fed my suspicion that if the quake hits, we're on our own while Fox News gleefully celebrates the rising death toll and credits the quake with preventing the next civil war.

And the thing I've noticed in three years of disaster-prep maintenance: It is a goddamned privilege to be able to do this. Being able to keep our (sole) car's gas tank at 3/4-full at all times, to keep a cash stash, to have the storage space for extra water and nonperishable food and a portable toilet set-up, to have the liquidity to stock out a first aid kit for everything from bee stings to broken limbs, to have the time to get extra Red Cross training for first aid -- that is all time and money. And those are resources that so many vulnerable people in this region won't have.

The blackouts are doing the same thing. I'm not likely to be personally affected but I'm already calculating the cost of a portable solar panel and a small generator, and I'll be able to buy and store both. How many people in the Bay Area can say the same? Not enough.
posted by sobell at 2:54 PM on October 9 [19 favorites]


How many people in the Bay Area can say the same? Not enough.

Certainly not those of us who can barely afford rent and utilities here. It sucks knowing we'll be under-prepared for The Big One. All you can do is hope it doesn't come until you can afford better means.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:21 PM on October 9 [5 favorites]


If you follow the CPUC reporting links in my initial comment above you'll see that there was only one other PSPS event so far this year, in June.

Please don't post falsehoods here. There was another PSPS two weeks ago, September 23. That one affected 48,000 customers or roughly 150,000 people. The June one affected 22,000 customers, or about 60,000 people. This outage is the third one, 800,000 customers or about 2.5M people.
posted by Nelson at 3:33 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Just got back from driving from Grass Valley to San Francisco. We lost our power at midnight, as threatened, third time this year. My friend bugged out to a motel in Lake Tahoe. I'm about to install a generator, just like all my wiser neighbors already have. Even with a generator my Internet service is down. So is my AT&T landline, which is a bit shocking. Traffic lights aren't working of course (30 minute delay through Auburn), many businesses closed, everyone's food spoiling. I can't wait to see the economic impact estimate of this outage. Also how many generator-caused fires we get this time. Two weeks ago we had one.

As much as I'd like to believe allkindsoftime's story about a bunch of earnest PG&E employees who really really care about their jobs, it's either not true or else not relevant. Yes, they are facing a huge problem right now, the culmination of decades of underinvestment and criminal neglect. Yes, there are individual line workers and helpers running the refugee centers charging stations and knocking door to door for customers who will literally die without electricity. They are probably good people, and I thank them for their work.

Meanwhile whoever actually makes decisions at PG&E has time and again chosen profit over investment and mediocrity over competence. This is the company that let unmaintained gas lines explode killing 8 people. Two years' running now their unmaintained power lines sparked enormous city-destroying fires, killing 44 people in 2017 and 40 people in 2018. This wasn't some unpredictable surprise out of the company's control. They knew they had a maintenance problem on the line that failed in 2018. The tower that failed was 99 years old and slated for replacement years ago. The company also reportedly spent $5 billion on shareholder dividends despite the need for repairs to decades-old equipment.

We can't keep letting PG&E work the way they have. We pay the highest rates for electricity in the continental US and yet we have a undermaintained power system that kills people and can't even be operated safely in a stiff breeze. Other parts of the first world don't have this problem, it's a California-exclusive. It's unacceptable.

I think completely destroying the company and investing a lot of money in a replacement is the medium term solution. Short term, State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed SB378 which will place some limits and oversight on PG&E shutdowns. No one wants another fire, but this thing where PG&E turns everyone off every few weeks is not acceptable. SB378 at least puts some skin in the game for the company.
posted by Nelson at 3:49 PM on October 9 [19 favorites]


Please don't post falsehoods here. There was another PSPS two weeks ago.

Well OK yeah so I missed the one from 2 weeks ago (sorry, it's not my full time job any more to focus on that) - and was going off the ones listed on the CPUC's list, which is not complete because PG&E is still within their window to submit their report on the second one.

I still think that one in June and one in September kind of misses the classification of "all summer" - so my point remains. But apologies for my error of omission - kind of different from a falsehood IMHO.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:52 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I emailed the moderators and asked them to change the language in the OP. They never replied.
posted by Frayed Knot at 4:12 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]


Since PG&E's map is down, you can check addresses at KQED.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:14 PM on October 9


Regarding respirators, CPAP machines, dialysis pumps - if you use these or know anyone who does use them, I can share some affordable, easy and nerdy battery advice.

This battery advice is useful for people who just want to keep a phone charged and have power for lights and stuff, but can't run or afford a generator, too!

Some/many of these devices can be powered by either a 12V DC input or sometimes 9V or 24V DC input, and the wall power supply will provide and indicate this on a pretty standard and usually tip positive power plug.

If a given medical device doesn't use 12V they often make a device that does use that kind of power specifically for mobile and/or car use because thoughtful medical device companies do this kind of thing and standardize power for mobile use.

There's a company (on Amazon, perhaps ebay) called Talent Cell or TalentCell that puts out affordable, small, portable Lithium Ion cell based battery packs that output direct 9v, 12v and even 24v dc models that can handle fairly high loads.

I have one of the smaller/medium sized ones that cost me about $50, that does 12V DC at about 3 amps. It also has a 9V tap and USB power. I use it to run stuff like portable audio amplifiers and it'll run a very loud boombox for like 10+ hours or more... I've never run it out on the speakers. It keeps my phone on and in heavy use for up to a week. It's reported that this specific CPAP for a solid 8-10 hours with power to spare.

I find it also recharges completely from flat in an hour or two ish via the 12V port and adapter. This is something that sets it apart from USB charging battery banks, and to make sure to look for.

And you can feed it any 12V of about an amp or so. It'll trickle charge off a portable solar panel, but happily take 3A or so and charge faster.

Anker is another company that makes these sorts of batteries, but Talent Cell seems to be a lot more affordable and has options dedicated to running stuff like CPAP machines and other medical devices. Anker also makes large capacity batteries that charge with a larger 18V laptop style power supply that charge much faster than 12V or USB.

One feature that was included with mine is that it included a 12V splitter cable. You can use it with the included 12V supply or an existing one and add it inline to something like a CPAP so it effectively acts like a passive power backup. If the power goes out it stops charging and switches over to provide 12V. I saw reports of medical device users using these packs for multi-day camping trips and similar reports.

Keeping a few of these battery packs around may be an affordable alternative to generators, powerwalls or larger scale battery solutions and UPSes to keeping medical equipment running. You might be able to even throw in some solar panels.

Sure, it won't keep your fridge on, but you could buy a whole array of these batteries and some robust portable solar panels for about the same price as the cheapest and noisiest big box generator.

For the price of something nice like a Honda Whisperlite it would be a lot of batteries and solar panels and could be a safer or easier alternative for an apartment dweller or someone with limited mobility issues.

But you could also get started and have some backup for well under $100.

If anyone has family, friend or love ones that can use remote tech help for battery solutions and purchasing the right batteries I can do that if they are able send info about the device, be it model name or pics of the unit or power supply involved. MeFi mail me.
posted by loquacious at 4:16 PM on October 9 [23 favorites]


The tower that failed was 99 years old and slated for replacement years ago.

The link you posted is behind a paywall so I can't access it, but both the WSJ's report over the summer as well as their follow up article specifically state:

PG&E noted that the tower where state investigators said equipment failed and sparked the Camp Fire wasn’t one of the towers set to receive upgrades.

Also, stiff breeze ≠ 65mph gusts.

Something something falsehoods.
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:16 PM on October 9


PG&E's website being down during this crisis has sure been a problem. The excuse they are seeing "heavy volume" is some bullshit. There are plenty of web professionals and standard technologies to build sites like PG&Es that can scale. It's doubly easy given a lot of what they need to disseminate is static information. Sure, access to live billing is hard. But "here's a map of the outage area" is the easiest thing in the world to serve at massive scale. Unless you're PG&E, which apparently is not competent at doing that or contracting that out, either.

It looked to me yesterday morning that part of what happened is they tried to rearchitect the site right in the middle of the crisis. Normally information about PSPS has been hosted at URLs on pge.com. Yesterday morning they started serving redirects to a new site, pgealerts.com. That new site never worked; sometimes you'd get SSL errors, sometimes you'd get through and be told "resource not found". My guess is that they rushed deployment of some new site without adequately testing it and it failed. Or it was supposed to be their high capacity emergency backup and it doesn't work. Either way, something changed for the worse. Right now some of the PSPS information on their site is loading again without the redirect, so maybe they're finally climbing out of the mess.

Full credit to the social media intern who's running the Twitter account though. They're doing a good job posting information. Some of it's useless since it's just a link to the broken website. But they posted screenshots of outage maps that seemed like an unusual amount of effort. An inspired decision, since Twitter is reliable even if PG&E isn't. (And what an irony that is!) The Twitter account seems the best way to get updates as the crisis continues.
posted by Nelson at 4:17 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


FWIW, I emailed the moderators and asked them to change the language in the OP. They never replied.

Sorry about the confusion; the address you mailed us at has been deprecated for a while and isn't the one the contact form goes to. It still lands in my email inbox but I wasn't on shift earlier and the mod on duty wouldn't have seen the request. I've updated that sentence according to your suggested change.
posted by cortex at 4:33 PM on October 9 [4 favorites]


PG&E's website being down during this crisis has sure been a problem.

It really has, given that pretty much every alert issued refers to the pge.com website for more information. This feels very much on-brand for them in an overstretched-infrastructure "but who could have anticipated THIS" kind of way.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:45 PM on October 9 [7 favorites]


PG&E's website being down during this crisis has sure been a problem.


Amateur hour. They could host their site on Pantheon and it wouldn’t break a sweat. Let someone else deal with the load balancing.
posted by porn in the woods at 4:54 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


I work at a utility that operates a whole bunch of transmission lines which have similar vegetation management issues to PG&E, though the bulk of them aren't in a super high fire risk climate.

Utilities have a difficult problem when they have significant exposure to a catastrophic outcome that will kill hundreds of people and a level of funding that only lets them manage the risk.

Increased funding seems like the obvious option but the cost of totally removing the risk is enormous and the money you would need to spend (tens or hundreds of billions?) would save thousands of lives via other measures like increased healthcare and housing spending. Fireproofing lines can also have significant environmental effects as some transmission lines travel through protected reserves and parks and wetlands.

So you (like all other utilities) decide to operate with an ongoing level of risk of a catastrophic fire. This risk can be assessed and reduced via running yearly LIDAR sweeps and patrolling the subset of lines you have access to, however on a long enough timescale you will eventually have a fire.

It is very difficult to communicate to the public and government that a level of risk remains. You can also see from the response to engineering disasters that the concept of managing ongoing risk is incompatible with the totally reasonable need from the public for narrative and accountability.
posted by zymil at 5:26 PM on October 9 [3 favorites]


This is the fifth intentional blackout in Butte County this year. On June 8, there were red flag conditions in the lowlands but not in the highlands. The Pacific Gas (and sometimes Electric) Company published a press release announcing what circuits would be shut off, then also shut off the Upper Ridge (where fuels were saturated after more than 9" of rain in the previous weeks) with no notification whatsoever. Eastern parts of the county were blacked out Sep 23, then regained power briefly Sep 24 before getting blacked out again that night. The Upper Ridge experienced brief gusty winds between 9 and 10 a.m. on the 25th and was blacked out from 3 a.m. that day until 11 a.m. the next. The Company then blacked out more than 10,000 customers in Butte County (and fewer than 100 outside) Oct 2-3. Today other areas of PG(&E)'s territory get a taste of our experience.

There was only one of these events last year, in October. In November, the Company warned customers that they might be blacked out then decided the unprecedented evaporative deficit combined with single-digit dewpoints did not justify such action. They announced the threat had passed once most of Paradise was on fire.

PG&E is responsible for far more than forty deaths last year. The latest official Camp Fire death toll is 85 as, for the second time, charred human remains were belatedly connected to another identifiable victim. The death toll downwind remains countless and will take a statistical analysis like Hurricane Maria.

Paradise sits on a broadening Cascade ridge. Skyway, Neal, Clark, and Pentz gently descend fingers of the ridge into the Central Valley. Yet thousands evacuated up Skyway instead because the downhill routes were blocked by fire and disabled vehicles. The traffic jams and death toll resulted from a lack of timely notification that embers from across the canyon were starting fires in town thanks to the high winds and very low moisture. In these conditions, where fires may spread rapidly, the proper response is not to shut off everyone's internet routers and drain their cellphone batteries.

Far more economical than undergrounding wires is replacing bare wires -- which will arc when they slap in high winds or contact vegetation -- with self-supporting aerial cable. The non-conductive sheathing combined with the neutral messenger cable eliminates line slap and reduces vegetation-contact faults by an order of magnitude. That also greatly narrows the required corridor, sparing nearby shade trees which suppress highly flammable undergrowth.

Covered conductors also change the equation for precautionary blackouts.

The 2003 blackout caused roughly 100 deaths and billions of dollars of economic damage. The low end for the current blackout will be several deaths and a billion dollars in overall harm. PG&E once again holds the mantle for the worst California disaster of the year.
posted by backwoods at 5:46 PM on October 9 [14 favorites]


The latest official Camp Fire death toll is 85

Thank you for correcting my mistake. Also appreciate the information on what you're experiencing in Butte County. Between the fires and the Oroville dam mess it's been a rough year or two for you, neighbor.
posted by Nelson at 5:59 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]


Wading in here gingerly as an energy industry professional in California. I was a PG&E employee for about three years working in their Energy Procurement group sitting in corporate HQ. Since then I've been at Tesla/SolarCity working on solar + battery policies and market offerings, at BART greening their energy supply & decoupling them from being a PG&E retail customer (we took them from 20% renewable to over 90%), and I now support several public power agencies in California that procure power for their local communities, including some with loads in PG&E's service territory. Thank you to allkindsoftime to bringing a lot of relevant facts to the conversation here.

Some details from my experience in the industry and at PG&E that might be relevant:
- PG&E is not losing any meaningful (to the corporation) revenue from not serving load during these outages. California, like a number of other states, has decoupled energy retail sales from the profits that the investor-owned utilities (IOUs) earn. As long as PG&E can prove to their regulators (the CPUC, in this case) that they are acting in line with the energy procurement and market bidding strategies that the regulators have already okayed, the costs of serving their load will be passed through directly in their future retail rates. PG&E as a corporation doesn't care if you consume 1 kWh/day or 1 MWh/day, and that is generally a good thing because it allows the corporation to be indifferent to things like energy efficiency programs.
- In my experience, both while at PG&E, and on the other side of the table from PG&E, the IOUs' regulators are generally... not well equipped to do their jobs well. This is not a moral failing by the staff at the CPUC as people. The CPUC pays laughably poorly for a job in San Francisco, so people who have energy market experience (and thus can work at a variety of energy-related companies) tend to not work at the CPUC (I would see a 40% pay cut and I already work at a government entity), staff turnover is high, and morale is low. This results in situations where, as an employee for PG&E, I would go to a meeting with our regulators where we were meant to be informing them of our planned market strategies or energy procurement (the procurement that they're supposed to authorize as reasonable and prudent), and spend half the meeting educating the regulators on the basics of the market before asking them to okay the plan that PG&E wanted. In my three years of going to these meetings that, in total, involved over a billion of dollars of spend, I was never told no, this procurement would not be allowed. Never.
- Related to the above, like any highly regulated corporation, PG&E trains its employees on how to get their regulators's approval. Due to the way energy costs are directly passed through to the ratepayers (so no potential for corporate profits from cost-savings), but disallowances (i.e. PG&E screw-up by not following the plan set by the regulators) hit corporate profits, the company paid more attention to the things it knew the regulators would notice, and regularly ignored potential cost savings that would save its ratepayers money but require a bit more effort on the part of PG&E as an entity, particularly when PG&E management thought that the regulators wouldn't notice (remember: the regulators had and have very little actual market knowledge). I personally decided to leave the company after an incident when I identified a way to save ratepayers ~$17M over fifteen years via a contract change that we could easily do, but my director shot it down because it would, essentially, require the company to send a short, simple email once a month, and if we failed to send the email it'd cost PG&E around $200,000 in disallowances. There was no way for regulators who hadn't worked on an energy trading floor for many years to even realize that the contract change was a possibility, so there was no way that they would ask, "Why didn't you do this change that would allow ratepayers to save millions of dollars and just automate the damn email?"
- While at PG&E I worked with a lot of really great people who did not do the above described "potential corporate costs always rank higher than ratepayer savings" calculation in their heads. The vast majority of the upper management that I came into contact with generally did, however. From my experience interacting with the two other IOUs in California (having never worked there directly, mind), I think PG&E's management (when I was there, 2012 - 2014) was much worse than the other two utilities. PG&E seemed to always be in a reactionary and defensive mindset, rather than embracing many of the changes that have recently been coming to the energy industry.
- Also, I can't speak to the experience of PG&E employees in the field, but at corporate "PG&E's Safety Culture" was 1000000% lip service and appearances and 0% real. It was absolute Office Space bullshit like mentioning that you cleaned up spills in the break room on the safety portion of your annual performance reviews, quiet whispers from more experienced employees to more junior ones to not get caught jay-walking near the office for fear of being written up and losing any hopes at an annual bonus, and office-wide emails about how exercise balls were no longer allowed as office chairs because one rolled away once while an employee was sitting down, and he ended up on the floor. It would have been a complete joke if it wasn't such a pain in everyone's ass.

Whew. Guess I had a bit to get off my chest regarding my time at PG&E. More on the actual outage and some of the market impacts that my team is monitoring in another comment - probably tomorrow morning because I'm about to be overrun by small children coming home.
posted by Jaclyn at 6:05 PM on October 9 [39 favorites]


quiet whispers from more experienced employees to more junior ones to not get caught jay-walking near the office for fear of being written up and losing any hopes at an annual bonus

Haaaa. I used to jaywalk SHAMELESSLY around 77 Beale / 245 Market, with the oft-fulfilled HOPE that I would get *caught* (HORRORS!) by a PG&E employee. They would light into me with their schpeel about "Safety first!" To which I'd immediately remind them that in the same safety briefings they started their meeting with, they had to point out that the nurse-care hotline was only for PG&E employees. If the same benefits to employees didn't apply to my lower caste contractor status at the company, then their same rules shouldn't either.

I never got a decent response to that line of reasoning.

That said I always assumed the culture was so much lip service so that it would be operationalized at a field level, which from the tailboards and whatnot that I saw in the field it seemed to be. But my exposure to field ops was pretty limited as I was mostly busy jaywalking in the FiDi.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:15 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


I'm trying to transcribe this but I am terrible at remembering things I heard, so bear with me:

There's a live stream on Twitter saying the whole weather event should end Friday. They may reconfigure some areas to bring service back to 44,000 of the 500,000 customers. Windgusts have reduced so they are working on seeing if they can bring service back in the Humboldt area. 60 to 80k could get their power back. Are monitoring the East/South Bay/Santa Cruz area due to a shift in weather pattern. 2 BART stations are getting backup generators. Weather supposed to subside around noon tomorrow according to forecasts. The third phase is going to be reduced in Kern, down to 46,000 customers. Helicopters are at the ready to start scrutinizing and personnel are ready to start as soon as the weather subsides.

Based on large # of outages and potential damage, could take several days to fully restore power after the weather dies down. Can only inspect during daylight hours. They are getting a new website that will be listed on Twitter after the press conference is over.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:17 PM on October 9


Weather pattern has shifted to later this evening. 8 to 10 p.m. time frame. Still anticipating a noon tomorrow stop. Someone's asking about how they can't trust their own equipment. Is this the new normal? Unless the weather changes. It's a multi year journey. "Why is your utility not prepared for the new normal?" We're working on it. Their estimate as to how long it will take...they hedge. Overall, they claim to be right on plan. "Don't get complacent, strongest winds are coming tonight."

(I will note for the non locals that frankly, it hasn't been THAT windy here so far. Really, I've seen a lot worse.)

"So it's definitely going to happen? I know we're talking about weather here." They said they will abort if nothing happens.
Friday applies to phase 3/Tehachepi area risk, 4300 customers there. The large majority of customers in Sierras, East, South Bay may get the all clear during that time frame and then they can start visual inspections. If there's no damage, they can do restoration in a very short time frame. If there is damage, not so much. Will commence with inspections around noon tomorrow, assuming all goes well and wind dies down. Will have to stop at sundown. Everyone is interconnected on the grid. They will hopefully be able to start giving ETA's of power being back on tomorrow..ish, I think.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:44 PM on October 9


New website is ONLY for this event, not for paying your bills. (Duh?) They will do another press conference tomorrow night.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:47 PM on October 9


Leaving aside the INSANITY of launching a new website right now, it's an hour later, press conference is well over. No new website has been announced.

Par. for. the. course.
posted by Frayed Knot at 7:54 PM on October 9 [4 favorites]


Watching the local news: "if you're having problems finding out if your power is going to go out because the PG&E website hasn't worked all day, PG&E just told us they made a new website but they didn't give us the address so we just made our own map you can use."
IN THE YEAR 2019
posted by primalux at 8:22 PM on October 9 [10 favorites]


It is maybe a little weird that PGE hasn't heard of AWS or at least Cloudflare?!?
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:23 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


Time to break out an UCO candle lantern; and once again reflect on all the technology and glory of the early 21st century.

We're doomed.
posted by buzzman at 8:24 PM on October 9




PG&E is responsible for far more than forty deaths last year.

...

The 2003 blackout caused roughly 100 deaths and billions of dollars of economic damage.


This is what frustrates me. If you were to use the same blame-assigning language for the 2003 blackout, you'd have to say something along the lines of FirstEnergy or General Electric were responsible for roughly 100 deaths and billions of dollars of economic damage, due to the software bug. AFAIK, neither of them ever saw anything amounting to the liability PG&E is facing (granted, I haven't researched this in detail).

People - particularly, it seems - angry, rich homeowners in California, love an easy scape-goat for a complex problem. Nobody wants to say that the wildfires, in some cases ignited by a PG&E asset failing, were in fact caused and driven by a whole lot of complex environmental factors (including where they built/bought their home), and that's what caused the deaths or economic damage. Never mind that PG&E owns and operates its assets in basically the same way all the other major utilities do, but at much greater scale. I mean cause that's a mouthful that just doesn't lend itself to a lawsuit so easily, does it?

Let's put a whole lot of ex-PG&E execs in jail. Then who will we blame when the next wildfires? Caused by lightning, or a dead raptor or squirrel, or a loose trailer chain sparking on asphalt, or someone doing their own electrical work on private property (Tubbs fire, where people are still trying to blame and sue PG&E)? Because all of those happen every year and each of them have caused fires that caused deaths and economic damage, but I've yet to see that spark any particular outrage.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:01 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


It's probably just a coincidence but when you look at the places the power won't be out, there's a significant power-on area from San Francisco, all the way down the east side of the peninsula, composed of all of Silicon Valley and past San Jose.
posted by bendy at 9:03 PM on October 9


It is maybe a little weird that PGE hasn't heard of AWS or at least Cloudflare?!?

Utility providers in the US are beholding to fairly stringent NERC / FERC regulations that hold the providers to an extremely high bar when it comes to IT security measures, because the grid is under near-constant digital terrorist attack. I'm not an expert in the space, but I do know that there have been a lot of concerns with the server blades that a lot of these cloud providers build their cloud farms out of. Many of those blades are built in China and suspect hardware has been found on them, which of course the cloud providers claim is impossible. I suspect this might be at least one of the reasons for being slow to expose their networks to third parties.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:12 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


It's probably just a coincidence but when you look at the places the power won't be out, there's a significant power-on area from San Francisco, all the way down the east side of the peninsula, composed of all of Silicon Valley and past San Jose.

While I get the skepticism, a cursory glance at CalFire's threat maps will help you see that the exact areas you mention are low threat because they are pretty much devoid of forests that provide fuel for fires. The threat jumps right back up to red once you step back into the mountains and forests. Which coincide pretty evenly with where power is being shut off. Those areas you mention aren't that much different from much of the central valley, topography and flora-wise.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:17 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


An informational website does not have to be (and should not be) connected to "the grid".
posted by kmz at 9:50 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


Also, just FYI, Bloomberg never provided any actual proof of that Big Hack article and it's generally considered to be bunk.
posted by kmz at 10:20 PM on October 9 [6 favorites]


PG&E's website being down during this crisis has sure been a problem.

I'm not going to claim any expertise regarding the necessity of the shutoff but preparedness and communication have been pretty abysmal - on the part of PG&E and on the part of state and local government.
posted by atoxyl at 11:00 PM on October 9


It's probably just a coincidence but when you look at the places the power won't be out, there's a significant power-on area from San Francisco, all the way down the east side of the peninsula, composed of all of Silicon Valley and past San Jose.
posted by bendy


If you want to go full conspiracy on this stuff, the cumulative effects of all these fires could be something like the effect of Katrina on New Orleans, which allowed NO to shed poor black people and replace them with wealthier mostly white people.

Silicon Valley needs room to locate businesses and more housing, and obliterating surrounding poorer communities with fire also obliterates political opposition to those things at a cost far less than buying them out at market rates would incur. The people who get burned out will mostly be unable to rebuild, and their land will go for a relative pittance.
posted by jamjam at 11:05 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]


allkindsoftime:Many of those blades are built in China and suspect hardware has been found on them, which of course the cloud providers claim is impossible. I suspect this might be at least one of the reasons for being slow to expose their networks to third parties.

Whilst the threat of compromise by hardware manufacturer (or in transit by intelligence agencies) is obviously real, that Bloomberg story is widely held in the security community to be utter rubbish from top to bottom. They were completely unable to point to any concrete evidence for a single one of their allegations & a people spent a lot of time going over hardware and turned up precisely nothing.

Could it be true? Sure. Did Bloomberg have any evidence whatsoever beyond vague handwavy allegations? No. It was a deeply unprofessional piece of journalism.
posted by pharm at 1:05 AM on October 10 [8 favorites]


Utility providers in the US are beholding to fairly stringent NERC / FERC regulations that hold the providers to an extremely high bar when it comes to IT security measures... I suspect this might be at least one of the reasons for being slow to expose their networks to third parties.

I doubt it. The CIA and NSA use Amazon for cloud services and they are able to meet their security and regulatory requirements. If a publicly-funded entity can do it, and their standards are necessarily higher and more demanding, I can't honestly see many reasons why privately-held energy companies like PG&E would not be able to do the same, short of managerial incompetence or malfeasance.

In any case, those stringent standards and regulations that utilities are held to just aren't working as intended. Don't live near a nuclear power plant, if you can help it.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:49 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Better that than a coal fired plant or a forest fire, but we don't fear the mundane technology of our great grandparents. Something in our brains makes it damn near impossible to accurately evaluate remote risks without a lot more effort than most people are willing to put in. (Somewhat ironically, engineers fail victim just as often as everyone else, despite their protestations to the contrary, when the risks in question are unrelated to their particular specialty. We aren't well equipped mentally for specialization.)
posted by wierdo at 3:17 AM on October 10


Utility providers in the US are beholding to fairly stringent NERC / FERC regulations that hold the providers to an extremely high bar when it comes to IT security measures, because the grid is under near-constant digital terrorist attack.

Hopefully PG&E isn't serving their customer service websites from their SCADA systems. Pretty sure regulation wouldn't interfere with them hosting a public relations site on a suitably scalable cloud service.

At any rate, both AWS and Azure are approved for sensitive government uses. If it's good enough for DoD...
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:19 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]


I just got an email saying the power is on in the town next to mine that lost power.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:14 AM on October 10


Should probably say that was from a business's mailing list, not anything official.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:21 AM on October 10


Utilities have a difficult problem when they have significant exposure to a catastrophic outcome that will kill hundreds of people and a level of funding that only lets them manage the risk.


Maybe I'm missing something but it looked like they had one billion dollars in net income last year. I know that the story is more than just power lines, but that looks like a lot of funding to manage risk.
posted by jeather at 7:02 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]




I'd like to make a gentle reminder to folks posting here we are in the middle of a crisis affecting 3 million+ people, including many Metafilterers. It's not life threatening for the vast majority of us, but it is an enormous inconvenience and upset to life and business. Random example: UC Berkeley is closed today. Here's an article about what's open and closed.

PG&E implemented another big wave of shutdowns around midnight, shutting off power for many Bay Area locations. There's another wave of shutdowns planned down south in Kern county.

They have started turning power on in some small areas in the Sierras. They're also planning on turning on northern customers in Humboldt as soon as they finish inspections.

But the larger scale shutdown is not over yet. The forecast high winds and fire risk really are happening, PG&E has to wait for that to pass and then to do a visual inspection of power lines before turning them back on. For the smaller outage two weeks ago that took 4 to 36 hours, a big limitation being they only can do it in daylight.

The "new website" PG&E is talking about is a map of planned outages. At this point more useful for many of us is a map of actual outages. At the moment PG&E's official outage map is working for me.

Here's an alternate view of current outages by the great Burrito Justice. He's using the same data that's on the official PG&E map but giving it his own map treatment. The caveat here is the data may be out of date. I made screenshots of both his map and the official one just now.

I'm not aware of any major fires reported. So in that sense we're better off that when we had similar weather last year.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on October 10 [10 favorites]


Energy law is its own world, especially at the intersection with government, but it seems to me at this point PG&E should be under the control of a court-appointed receiver, ideally someone with a track record in both energy and emergency management. However wonderful its front line workers may be, its corporate culture would seem to be beyond self-help. Its current leadership cannot be relied upon to live up to the responsibilities it has to the public.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:02 AM on October 10 [7 favorites]


There is some significant judicial oversight into PG&E right now. In addition to the various civil lawsuits and bankruptcy hearings, PG&E is also under federal probation administered by Judge William Alsup. I don't have time to link a bunch of articles but he pops up in the news every couple of months when he speaks out after PG&E embarasses itself with further prevarication or outright lies. See here or here for examples. Alsup is a uniquely capable judge on technical issues; he taught himself to program in Java when judging the Oracle case, for instance.
posted by Nelson at 8:27 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]


I was also linked to this, where the plan for people who have medical needs for power are told to use their own resources to leave and, failing that, to call for an ambulance. PG&E gave some people "extra notice", aka 2 days, but this is a real disability crisis also.
posted by jeather at 8:58 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]


Seems like at this point the distinction between being caught flat-footed and deliberately fucking over the people of California is exceedingly tiny.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:01 AM on October 10 [5 favorites]


Why the PG&E Blackouts Spared California's Big Tech HQs -- Silicon Valley companies are served by safer, robust transmission lines. Regular homes? Not so much. (Wired, 10.09.2019)
Huge swaths of California were without power on Wednesday after the (recently bankrupt) utility PG&E—whose downed power lines caused last year’s Camp Fire—preemptively pulled the plug on hundreds of thousands of customers. The unprecedented move, designed to reduce the risk of wildfires, plunged more than 500,000 homes in 20 counties (and counting) across Northern and Central California into darkness shortly after midnight, and plans are in place to cut power to over 250,000 more. In total, the estimated number of people that could be left without electricity is upward of 2 million (a “customer,” in PG&E-speak, can be an apartment complex or other kind of multiunit building). Though the scope of the blackout is expansive, blanketing the Bay Area, chunks of the region remain conspicuously absent from outage maps: The seats of power for nearly every major tech giant.
Also, a LOT of other businesses in the greater Bay Area.
The types of power lines traditionally seen dangling overhead in residential areas and neighborhoods are considered more of a wildfire risk because of their proximity to the ground and increased likelihood of being surrounded by trees and other forms of vegetation, [Michael Wara, head of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute] explained. Bulky high-voltage transmission lines—which are designed to carry large amounts of energy to large industrial users and local distributors—just aren’t vulnerable in the same way. Wara says they tend to be built to higher standards, making them less prone to wind damage.
So the issue is more that residential users don't get the same sort of infrastructure as heavy commercial and industrial users, which isn't a surprise, but is an interesting look at some aspects of this.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:30 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]


Ah, yeah. It's the shelves full of car batteries that's the sticking point.

For keeping your refrigerator cold, some lights on, and some portable electronics charged, it's more like a (possibly largish, depending on your needs) drink cooler.

As long as you aren't building it yourself without protection and balancing circuits or are buying the low quality crap that customs isn't supposed to let into the country, the risk of fire is quite low. Unlike with drones, scooters vape rigs, etc, you aren't pulling (or pushing) enough power to drain the pack in 10 minutes. Ideally more like 0.1C (on average, peaking at maybe 1C) rather than 10C.

If you're still worried, that's what a battery box is for. ;)
posted by wierdo at 9:32 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Speaking of food, here's USDA guides on food safety in power outages. Bottom line: after 4 hours the refrigerator is dicey, and you've got 48 hours if your freezer is full.
posted by Nelson at 9:34 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]


Let’s Own PG&E
posted by The Whelk at 9:35 AM on October 10 [7 favorites]


An ice chest and some blocks of ice are a heck of a lot cheaper than solar panels and batteries. For less than 100 bucks you can keep food cold for at least a week.
posted by JackFlash at 9:42 AM on October 10


So the issue is more that residential users don't get the same sort of infrastructure as heavy commercial and industrial users, which isn't a surprise, but is an interesting look at some aspects of this.

Kind of. Wara is referring to the fact that the "types of power lines traditionally seen dangling overhead in residential areas" are what the industry refers to as "distribution" lines (aka. conductors). Whereas the "bulky high-voltage transmission lines" are just that - lines that are on lattice steel towers, transmitting a much higher KV flow of electricity to both large industrial users, local distributors (aka. PG&E's sub-stations that use breakers and transformers to change the high KV flow from the transmission lines into lower KV flows that then spread out into the neighborhoods via the distribution lines you see in your neighborhood). Your house couldn't handle the type of KV that a transmission line carries without significant assets (they types at the substations and larger industrial users), it requires the step-down that substations and various assets along the distribution lines take care of for you.

PG&E is shutting down primarily Transmission lines, but this by default causes the power to go out to the Distribution lines fed by those Transmission lines. The line that went down in Caribou-Palermo was a transmission line, for example.

Considering the peninsula, it's fed by transmission lines coming up from the south, as well as ones under the bay. There's very little wildfire ignition/spread risk on the east side of the penninsula (where the transmission lines run, and where most of Silicon Valley is situated) because it is developed land with very little vegetation to fuel wildfire spread. The Bay, of course, even less risk of that.

Again, I don't see the conspiracy here. I think we at Metafilter are better than that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:47 AM on October 10 [7 favorites]


I'm not aware of any major fires reported. So in that sense we're better off that when we had similar weather last year.

There are currently 3 active CalFire incidents, but no major fires in the same sense as last year.

I expect your sentiment to be woefully underreported and shared as a benefit of the actions PG&E took in the last year and a half. It's hard to calculate the value of something terrible that never happened, so all the work that went into making the state safer this fire season is doomed to be pretty thankless.

I get the too-little-too-laters who want justice, and those concerned for the disabled being underserved. Less so the I'm-pissed-my-fridge-food-is-going-bad. Particularly for homeowners: there are many out there who can't budget to replace a fridge full of food, let alone dream of owning a house or generator.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:56 AM on October 10




I get the too-little-too-laters who want justice, and those concerned for the disabled being underserved. Less so the I'm-pissed-my-fridge-food-is-going-bad. Particularly for homeowners: there are many out there who can't budget to replace a fridge full of food, let alone dream of owning a house or generator.

I was up in Redding, CA last spring visiting with my dad and my brother. They're both homeowners and they were starting to think about what they should do to prepare for today. They began to discuss generator options -- was it worth getting something a little more substantial than one of those quiet little portable Hondas? How much did they really need to get through a few days? Just to keep the fridges and the freezers going (can't lose all the venison and salmon!!!)?

And like that for a while until I said, hey you know you could get a solar set-up and a big bank of batteries and you'd be set in case of a blackout AND you'd be mostly off grid and saving money.

Yeah, but gas generators are cheap, they said. It'd be years before you earned back what it costs to put up solar.

Not that many years now and getting cheaper all the time, plus you know, the environment? That's heating up and that's making the fires worse?

That'd be the only sensible reason for that, Dad said. Maybe 15 years ago when I built this place I should have done that. But if I did it now I'd be dead before I earned it back. Then he turned to my brother and started in on which little quiet Honda gasoline-powered generator he was leaning toward.

So I dunno how this fits with PG&E's decision to shut it all down and why they took it, but just that there's a lot of narrow thinking all around and it's stubborn.
posted by notyou at 10:20 AM on October 10 [10 favorites]


fuck pg&e. fuck elon musk & tesla. fuck the rich profiteers who get bankruptcy bailouts, while working class people get the boot.

this is a thread on the Fremont factory, Tesla, and PG&E (TWITTER)
posted by The Whelk at 10:45 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]




Less so the I'm-pissed-my-fridge-food-is-going-bad. Particularly for homeowners: there are many out there who can't budget to replace a fridge full of food, let alone dream of owning a house or generator.

You know, I've been thinking about this comment all morning. I'm supposed to be OK with PG&E not providing me power for several days and ruining all my food because we have people who are not fortunate enough to have enough to eat, or homes to live in? It's the worst kind of concern trolling.

What about the folks who can barely afford a fridge full of food in the rental home? Are they allowed to be pissed that they're about take a serious, unreimbursed loss? Maybe they'll qualify for the $25-$100 for extended outages. Not sure even that will apply though, since it only pays for "a major weather-related event that caused significant damage to PG&E's electric distribution system".

I'll be charitable, the comment says the poster just doesn't quite understand why. It's pretty simple. I've got, oh, $500 to $1000 worth of stored food in my refrigerator and freezer. It is being ruined because PG&E chose not to provide electricity. They chose to do this because their infrastructure is unsafe. That infrastructure is unsafe because of years of well documented underinvestment and profit siphoning, aided by a corrupt and captive regulatory body.

Is that clear? Perhaps it's more OK for me to be pissed if I wear a hairshirt while I type this? Or share with you my history of charitable donations to people who lack food or housing?
posted by Nelson at 2:04 PM on October 10 [15 favorites]


I would bet that since this wasn't a straight up storm, nobody will qualify for it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:16 PM on October 10


PG&E has a second URL for the official outage map. The underlying data URL is directly on Amazon's Elastic Beanstalk, so it may be more reliable than the usual outage map which is backed by some internal PG&E API server.
posted by Nelson at 3:25 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]




I misread the link above as "official outrage map," which seems appropriate...
posted by PhineasGage at 4:12 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


There's very little wildfire ignition/spread risk on the east side of the penninsula (where the transmission lines run, and where most of Silicon Valley is situated) because it is developed land with very little vegetation to fuel wildfire spread

I figure this is basically just reflecting zoning more than anything. There's also a fairly dense packing of industry and tech offices north of 101 and caltrain, while the residences sprawl up towards the hills where the trees are. And the one major tech company HQ outside that geography I know of is one of the largest rooftop solar installs in the world.
posted by pwnguin at 4:14 PM on October 10


Nevada County businesses suffer during PG&E power shutdown: the small town local paper view. This is for Grass Valley, where I live.

Also slightly kookier: Nevada City mayor slams PG&E, calls for its dismantling. Complete with glow stick protest march.
posted by Nelson at 5:22 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


"Is this the new normal?" "This is not the future any of us wanted to be in," says the first fellow up at today's news conference (I missed his name). We need to do things better next time than we did this time (because of course there will be a next time, that's implied). Our website crashed, our maps are wrong, our call centers are overloaded, we were not prepared.

We have to wait for the weather to pass, 25000 miles of line to inspect. "The buck stops with me on these events." If you're upset, don't take it out on the folks. We have thousands out there right now who lost power themselves. "We've had employees shot at, punched.....These people are here to help you."

2nd guy up: 730k customers affected, 31% (228k) have gotten power back in Sierras, Bay Area, Humboldt. 510k remain with no power. The adverse weather conditions have subsided enough to start inspections, with the exception of a footprint in the Sierra Foothills around Kern and well, paradise. That should subside somewhere between tonight and tomorrow afternoon. Other counties will continue to be monitored. Multiple cases of damage from wind have been found such as fallen branches hitting overhead lines that could have ignited had they been. Inspections resume at daybreak.

First lady up: apologizes to customers (note that it's the lady saying this....), they didn't expect the website to crash and tried to add capacity beforehand, but they didn't expect it would be THAT BAD, ditto the call centers. (Uh...if you've ever worked in a call center... EVERYTHING WILL ALWAYS BE BAD IF THERE IS THE SLIGHTEST REASON TO CALL YOU). "We were testing the (new) website for functionality." It's been up all day. 33 customer resource centers have been running. There will not be another event in this event, which I interpret as "we are no longer turning off anyone's power today." Other outages for other reasons are happening though. All credit/collection/disconnection is off right now but will be resumed once the event is completed. For those who were shut off, they will not be billed for the time they are out of service. WELL, I WOULD THINK SO. Emergency calls are prioritized. "This is a difficult day" to be in her job, basically, what with all the communication issues. "We own it, we will do better."

Q&A time:

The governor said this was all about greed and neglect and ripped on you guys a LOT just now. Your response? "I didn't come here to deal with that, I came here to help the future...I might have some slight disagreement with the governor if I did."

"You really expect us to suffer this again and again?" The guy basically says "what's the price of life" in answer to that.

Optics over the last year: what about asking for all those bonuses when you're bankrupt? "Those aren't bonuses, they're incentives." Everybody does it!

Guy claims to have gotten better at narrowing the scope. We acted on our predictions but we don't have that much granularity. You might not have seen much wind where you are, but you might have been connected somewhere that was. We could have done better in communication, but we didn't overcommunicate the scope.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:25 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]








We got our power back in Grass Valley at our house, but you wouldn't know it looking at their outage map. I guess that data is going to be unreliable / out of date for awhile. Our AT&T phone line came back too, which suggests a serious problem at AT&T. Our local WISP Internet is still down but they're exposed to customer's power over the entire county and are, um, not over-engineered. Not surprised.

Schools are still closed in Grass Valley today. That's 3 days missed, 3 days of emergency child care, 3 days of some parents missing work.
posted by Nelson at 8:32 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


PG&E gas employees wined and dined just before mass power outages
PG&E confirmed that 10 to 12 employees on the gas side of the business were mingling with 50 to 60 of their top customers at a winery in Sonoma County on Monday and Tuesday.
Tuesday was the day I was filling my bathtub with water so I could fill a bucket and flush my toilet when the power went out.
posted by Nelson at 9:08 AM on October 11 [7 favorites]


Tuesday was the day I was filling my bathtub with water so I could fill a bucket and flush my toilet when the power went out.

Tuesday was the day we started making plans to shit in the public restrooms in the park across the street from our neighborhood since we don't have the luxury of a tub to store water in at home. You know, if they don't lock us out of them.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:20 PM on October 11


That sucks, I'm sorry.

They just tweeted this update: PG&E Continues to Make Progress: Power Restored to 74 Percent of Customers Impacted by PSPS. It's really hard to understand the logic of who gets turned on first. We have power at our semi-rural house while a mile away the middle of town in Grass Valley is still dark. I assume it all has to do with how much risk there is on each line and how accessible they are to inspection. Also there's repair work to do: "PG&E has identified 23 instances of weather-related damage to its system in the PSPS-impacted areas, and the company is working to address these repairs."
posted by Nelson at 12:42 PM on October 11




PG&E: power restored to 98% of customers (last night at midnight). They're still running a few refugee community resource centers in various places, which gives a clue where the blackout persists.

The pattern of blackouts remaining in Grass Valley is strange. It's still a lot of customers (several thousand), but it's a bunch of separated areas. Not particularly isolated either, most are just a couple of miles out of city boundaries. Also the whole neighborhood of Alta Sierra, it looks like. I'm guessing these are because of actual equipment damage, I don't think inspecting them would be any different than anything else that got inspected Thursday/Friday.

There are zillions of articles about the impact of the outage but I don't have the time or patience right now to run them down. Besides, we might be going through all this again in a week or two.
posted by Nelson at 9:00 AM on October 12


Via Reddit, California has a new state flag. (Original source: Breen at the San Diego Union-Tribune).
posted by Nelson at 9:40 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


I would imagine the preppers of Northern California don't look as stupid as they did 6 months ago.
posted by jamjam at 11:09 AM on October 12


It's not owning generators that make preppers look stupid, it's more the 𝝡𝝤𝝠𝝤𝝢 𝝠𝝖𝝗𝝚 bumper stickers and the race war fantasies
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:15 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


As the example of New Orleans made plain, race war fantasies tend to become all too real in the wake of disaster — although in the event, they are shown to be what they actually were all along: fantasies of ethnic cleansing.
posted by jamjam at 11:31 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


‘This Did Not Go Well’: Inside PG&E’s Blackout Control Room. NYT with the details.
posted by Nelson at 5:56 PM on October 12


Jenfullmoon's climate dystopia link is worth reading, if you want a look at the future, how in most places the disaster is going to creep up rather than happen all at once.
posted by tavella at 6:11 PM on October 12


I guess the crisis is over now. Our local independent grocery store is back open but so far with an empty set of freezer cases. No dairy either. I hope they are insured, that's a huge loss for a low-margin business. A clerk said they gave away what they could and dumpstered the rest.

Placer County, to the south of us, waived dump fees for people throwing out spoiled food. Nice of them.

Still waiting to read the final cost summary of this shutdown. At least the statewide consensus seems to be this is not a solution. I suspect that was PG&E's PR goal all along, but I hope the outcome isn't just that the state gives them a pass on liability for their negligence.
posted by Nelson at 9:34 AM on October 13 [1 favorite]


George Dvorsky, Gizmodo, 10/11/19: California Power Outage Wreaks Havoc at Research Labs. "Science laboratories in northern California are scrambling to protect precious supplies, samples, and lab animals threatened by an extensive power outage... The intentional blackout has caused major disruptions at university campuses, prompting numerous school closures."
posted by homunculus at 5:04 AM on October 15 [1 favorite]


I should be surprised that some of the most well known universities in the nation haven't grown their emergency power capability as their needs have grown, but somehow I'm not..
posted by wierdo at 6:54 AM on October 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah really we should give up on centralized power entirely and have everyone run their own generators. It's good enough for Afghanistan, it's good enough for us.
posted by Nelson at 9:30 AM on October 15 [3 favorites]


There definitely needs to be a conversation about hardening existing centralized infrastructure and providing safe, clean, reliable decentralized alternatives for short-term emergencies, or as supplements or complete replacements.
posted by notyou at 12:29 PM on October 15 [3 favorites]


Gavin Newsom demands PG&E pay $100 to each customer affected by California blackouts . Not sure what authority he's invoking to make this demand; I think none. FWIW Newsom's taken a lot of shit for somehow not being an effective Governor during this PG&E crisis. Maybe this is his idea of how to sound tough after the fact.

Meanwhile Scott Wiener continues to promote SB378, which would make this kind of penalty part of state law.

I've started to see some guesses as to the cost of the voluntary outage. $2 billionish is a popular number. Not clear anyone knows how to really calculate it. For comparison, PG&E's market cap as a public company is about $4B now. The value of their assets is presumably much higher, but then so are their liabilities too.
posted by Nelson at 12:47 PM on October 15 [1 favorite]




Southern California Edison is being looked at as a possible source for the Saddleridge fire, which has burned 8,000 acres and destroyed 17 buildings (so far; 56% contained as of Thurday morning). The fire started near one of their high-voltage transmission lines, which had not been shut off, though they had shut off power in some places.

LA times.
posted by fragmede at 9:17 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]


I just got this in email from PG&E:

But here’s where we stand today: More than half of PG&E’s 70,000-square-mile service area in Northern and Central California is considered by state officials to be at high risk of wildfire.
In 2012, that designation applied to just 15% of our service area.
The speed at which our landscape has become a tinderbox is unnerving. It’s now home to 129 million dead, dying and diseased trees.
In this environment, the dry, severe winds that rise from the east during this time of year compound the risk for wildfire. Any spark can touch off a catastrophe.
When those conditions arrived last week, we made the tough decision to turn off large parts of our electric system. We did that for one reason: to keep our customers safe.
Our decision achieved that purpose. We did not have a catastrophic wildfire in our service area.
We did see damage to our system because of the wind. When we patrolled all 25,000 miles of lines that we turned off, we found more than 100 confirmed cases of wind-related damage — including trees into power lines and downed power lines.
Had we not shut off power, this type of damage could have sparked a fire. In fact, vegetation contacting lines was the very cause of a number of fires in the North Bay two years ago.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:02 AM on October 19


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