It’s the End of California as We Know It
October 31, 2019 10:35 AM   Subscribe

"The fires and the blackouts aren’t like the earthquakes, a natural threat we’ve all chosen to ignore. They are more like California’s other problems, like housing affordability and homelessness and traffic — human-made catastrophes we’ve all chosen to ignore, connected to the larger dysfunction at the heart of our state’s rot: a failure to live sustainably."

"Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking. We are running out of land, housing, water, road space and now electricity. Fixing all this requires systemic change, but we aren’t up to the task. […] Either we alter how we live here, or many of us won’t live here anymore." (Farhad Manjoo, New York Times)

A Taste of the Climate Apocalypse to Come — "PG&E’s rolling blackouts probably don’t eliminate fire risk, and they actually could make responding to fires harder. What they largely do is shift responsibility away from the company." (Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica)

California power shutoffs: when your public utility is owned by private investors — "PG&E invested millions in state lobbying, paid out $4.5bn in profits to shareholders over the last five years, and millions in executive bonuses — all while deferring necessary maintenance and repairs to its system." (Susie Cagle, The Guardian) More (Lee Fang, The Intercept)

Could California Take Public Ownership of PG&E? — "While the campaigns in Rhode Island and California may seem fledging, they're not without precedent. There's already one state in the union that provides electricity to its businesses and residents via community ownership rather than for-profit corporations: Nebraska." (Alexander Sammon, Pacific Standard)

Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows — "Rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought… Overall, the research shows that countries should start preparing now for more citizens to relocate internally… In other places, the migration caused by rising seas could trigger or exacerbate regional conflicts. 'So this is far more than an environmental problem. […] It’s a humanitarian, security and possibly military problem too.'" (Denise Lu & Christopher Flavelle, New York Times)

Planning the Earth System — "The Earth before humanity was directionless, a ship without a captain. It didn’t care whether it extinguished itself. Today, the market left to its own devices, and a planet without a democratic government, likewise leaves our world without a hand on the tiller. But we humans do care, deeply, about our own flourishing, and it lies in our capacity to put our hand on that tiller. If we want to confront climate change and biodiversity loss globally — if we want to preserve our anomalous, anthropocentric, and increasingly anthropogenic set of Goldilocks conditions — we must come to terms with the fact that what is required of us is nothing short of global democratic governance…" (Leigh Philips, The Breakthrough)
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Note: I know there's an ongoing thread on PG&E, but I'm hoping this thread will take the conversation in broader strokes, starting with California and expanding... Whether the discussion goes into the themes of the featured editorial, the precedent (Nebraska) and possibility of public power in the U.S. (California, Rhode Island), the effects of rising sea levels and other signs of existential climate crises, competing narratives of climate change activism, or something else related, I'll leave that up to MeFites.
posted by postmortemsalmon (37 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
If San Francisco had the population density of Paris, it would have approximately 2.6 million inhabitants. If Los Angeles had the population density of New York, it would have 13 million residents, just about as many as the entire Los Angeles metro area, which is 8 times larger than the city itself. Food for thought.
posted by Automocar at 10:42 AM on October 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


We also appear to be reaching a tipping point on permafrost methane release. It's difficult to find much cause for optimism anymore.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:44 AM on October 31, 2019 [8 favorites]


I can't handle this right now. Farhad's column is good, but it's the opposite of what I need now.
posted by Nelson at 10:48 AM on October 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


There are certain truths in this FPP, but it must also be pointed out that you'll never go broke telling New Yorkers how much California sucks.
posted by Etrigan at 11:10 AM on October 31, 2019 [50 favorites]


I hate pinning so much hope on one child, but dear god is Greta Thunberg inspiring. I'm about as bleak as they come when it comes to this planet, but - she just refused award money. Even if noble, I think she recognizes the dangers inherent in such a proposition.

I hope she can have the strength to carry on - I hope WE can have the strength to stand by her, to do what she is able to do.

Where does she have the faith? Perhaps she's in denial? Perhaps she believes it really CAN be stopped. Or perhaps she's just trying to mitigate the worst at this point.

Regardless, she's trying and doing so much more than I ever could do, so much more than I *DO* do. And I have no excuses for failing to act in ways I can/should.

SIGH.
posted by symbioid at 11:34 AM on October 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


These fires are exacerbated by climate change but the reason they happen with this frequency - and the direct cause of the blackouts - is a failure by PG&E to maintain its infrastructure. Does anyone remember the San Bruno gas explosion? PG&E has been ditching culpability for decades and now they are essentially playing hardball with these blackouts to avoid liability because the state of California has not had the balls to make them pay. This is a failure of capitalism and a vulgar orgy of greed.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2019 [19 favorites]


We also appear to be reaching a tipping point on permafrost methane release

My understanding is that there is far from scientific consensus that we have reached a "tipping point" with Arctic permafrost methane release. It doesn't do anyone any good to promote this kind thing-- and with a climate doomer quip to boot.

Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050, New Research Shows

Note that the crux of this research is based on improved satellite land elevation readings, not new climate data-- so while this is indeed terrible news for the land areas in the study, it does not mean that other climate metrics have gotten worse.

Anyway, some other news that came out this week:

* The Steel Mill That Helped Build the American West Goes Green
* Virginia signs largest state renewable energy contract in US
* Rise of renewables may see off oil firms decades earlier than they think
* Leading Australian engineers turn their backs on new fossil fuel projects
posted by gwint at 11:46 AM on October 31, 2019 [34 favorites]


If we redesigned our cities for the modern world, they’d be taller and less stretched out into the fire-prone far reaches — what scientists call the wildland-urban interface. Housing would be affordable because there’d be more of it.

Yes, exactly. Just look how affordable housing is here in the population-dense skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Wait, what?
posted by The Bellman at 12:19 PM on October 31, 2019 [11 favorites]


I think the 'as we know it' part is what's key here. My neighborhood is adjacent to a park that regularly catches fire and this is something we live with. I have quite a collection of photos of helicopters dropping water in view of my back yard. With that in mind, we have to recognize how fortunate we are that California is rich enough to be able to afford to attempt to fix it.

We need to remember that a fix exists and is known. We don't need to figure out anything other than how to pay to bury conductors that are currently above ground. It's not complicated or rocket surgery or anything, it's just really expensive. It's basically so expensive a for-profit organization will never undertake it voluntarily. So expensive PG&E would rather institute hugely complex helicopter-based nearly continuous inspections than contemplate it. So expensive they are playing chicken with the legislature rather than having an honest discussion about it.

These blackouts are a political move intended to make this point as emphatically as possible. It's a gamble. PG&E either gets a bailout and doesn't pay for this out of pocket and can stay in business or the state decides to bail them out by taking them over and the whole enterprise disappears.

An opportunity exists to fix the power distribution in the state. I really hope we take it this time rather than letting it slip through our fingers like the post-Enron situation. We have a chance to fix this in a way that sets California up to be in as good a position for climate change as possible. The alternative is the grim reality we find in other states who have totally abdicated their environmental responsibilities and now look fearfully towards the future.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:29 PM on October 31, 2019 [15 favorites]


I live in Rhode Island and this is, sadly, the first I've heard about local efforts to nationalize National Grid.

I have mixed feelings, I guess. In principle, I like the idea. In practice, this state is so small and so crowded, and there's so much NIMBYism to literally any form of power generation new construction whatsoever (I've seen locals protest farmers who wanted to set up solar farms!) that we're basically always going to be stuck importing energy, at least until Deepwater Wind scales WAY the hell up). I can understand why the DSA sees our PUC as just a rubber-stamp but I think they have a pretty naive view of how much leverage our mostly-broke, tiny state's PUC would have over National Grid even if it wanted to be aggressive. You can make the case that a publicly-owned state grid would at least cut one greedy middleman out, and that's certainly true but at the same time, the state, well, let's just say this state does not have a great track record for balancing budgets or maintaining infrastructure, even when compared to the bar set by National Grid.
posted by mstokes650 at 12:36 PM on October 31, 2019 [1 favorite]


We don't need to figure out anything other than how to pay to bury conductors that are currently above ground. It's not complicated or rocket surgery or anything, it's just really expensive.

No. These lines run through national forests and natural land. We have to weigh the environmental and political impact of bulldozing forests in order to bury them first. In a state where building single family homes in built up areas is fraught with environmental concerns legislated by the courts and regulations on how tall you can build your house on your own property, such that you don't shade your neighbor's house, exist.

This is only about 10% about the costs.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:41 PM on October 31, 2019 [12 favorites]


The forests are already bulldozed and maintained to clear firebreaks and fire roads for all of the high voltage lines. I have a house in Sierra National Forest with one of these lines nearby. It's not a solution with zero issues to resolve but we can figure them out.

The alternative to burying them is the fires keep happening indefinitely, or we end up needing to clear even larger corridors around them, etc. I don't really see how this is fixed without burying them.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:47 PM on October 31, 2019 [13 favorites]


Power lines are not the only thing causing these fires. Burying them will reduce them a bit, but not to anything approaching zero. Fires will always be here, it's just part of the landscape/climate (and will probably get worse with climate change). It literally only takes a spark.

[Edit: alternative non-paywalled link]
posted by thefoxgod at 12:55 PM on October 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


A dumb question from this Canadian: Won't you still have things like lightning sparking fires, even if you get rid of all the electrical fires?
posted by clawsoon at 12:57 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


Burying the lines definitely isn't a 100% fix but eliminating those fires removes a tremendous burden from already comically overextended firefighting resources and allows them to focus on natural fires and maybe even more preventative work such as prescribed burns. Also, some of the deadliest fires we've experienced recently, such as the Camp Fire and Wine Country Fires, have been associated with PG&E or other utility equipment.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:00 PM on October 31, 2019 [6 favorites]


Lightning is not so common here (at least in the parts of California I've lived in), but yes, anything that causes a spark.

The Carr fire was started by a flat tire.

This article goes into a few more causes, including discarded cigarettes, campfires, usual suspects.

Power lines have caused a couple big recent fires and so they're on the top of everyone's mind, but even without them we would have many devastating fires every year.
posted by thefoxgod at 1:01 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


... but we aren’t up to the task.

Sounds like they don't have the Do-Re-Mi. Better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:02 PM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]


And of course it's not just the private utilities. Here in LA the Getty Fire was also caused by power lines (not maintenance issue, just a tree hitting one). But thats a line owned by LADWP, the publicly-owned power company for LA.

And the line is actually completely intact, it's just that a branch hit it and caused a spark. So even though it was well maintained, the only fix would have been to have buried it.

Obviously if there was no cost issue, burying is preferable. But the cost is actually incredibly high, and LA has arguably bigger crises to deal with. Especially since the majority of LA area fires have been caused more directly by humans, power-line related ones have been rare.
posted by thefoxgod at 1:11 PM on October 31, 2019


LADWP is actually fairly unique among CA utilities in having had a program to bury conductors going almost all the way back to their inception. Over the years they have gotten a lot of static over spending the extra money to do this. It's been mandated for new construction at least in LA county since the 90s. Interestingly, some of of the areas of the Getty Fire were not modernized to buried conductors due to the neighbors not wanting to deal with the work being done.

Obviously they need to bury more but this is why LADWP has not had widespread blackouts of the type SCE has had here in LA.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:16 PM on October 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


I live and work in Santa Rosa and I can verify that it's been tense around here. There’s a lot of shared trauma of having to bug out repeatedly. Many who haven’t been evacuated have not had power and, by extension, hot food, hot showers, etc. Just about everyone I’ve talked to has blamed PG&E. I can only imagine that PG&E had best be very afraid of pitchforks (we'll leave the torches at home this time).
posted by Eikonaut at 1:37 PM on October 31, 2019 [7 favorites]


In my life, I spent 40 years in the territory of the L.A. City-owned Department of Water and Power and had no complaints, even when the bills came in. Then I moved up to the Central California Coast and spent 13 years literally in the shadow of PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and receiving an annual pamphlet basicly advising how to evacuate in case Diablo ever started to go full Chernobel (and reminding me I was in Evac Zone ONE). And I've followed the news as PG&E hemmed and hawed over needed upgrades and decided to save money and trouble by just shutting it down - five years from now. With all the other PG&E crap coming down, I am moderately surprised that Diablo (and I) survived that long. From my POV, I'd rather see a Public Utilitied entity take it over while there's still hope somebody can handle it non-disasterously.

As for the rest of "the end of the California Dream", I moved out of L.A. hoping to get a few more years of dreaming out of this state, only to find I'd moved into an equally unaffordable area with much better views.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:41 PM on October 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


The economic fix for power cables sparking in contact with vegetation is to cover the conductors. That doesn't eliminate all risks from overhead lines (such as vehicles knocking down poles), but it wins the cost:benefit analysis by more than a factor of three.

High-voltage transmission lines generally run through broad clear-cut swaths. Distribution lines generally do not -- unlawfully logged corridors like the Lovelock-Stirling line being exceptions -- and they do not need to, particularly if conductors are covered.

Undergrounding overhead distribution cables is time-consuming and expensive -- over $1M/mile through relatively open space like from Chico to the workforce village and several million per mile through densely developed areas. It is generally not the best use of finite resources.

Undergrounding transmission lines -- or replacing them with HVDC -- through already disturbed rural landscapes is a longterm project worth pursuing, especially in High Fire-Threat areas, as covered conductor is not a solution for 230kV lines like the Geysers #9 line that failed in Sonoma.
posted by backwoods at 1:51 PM on October 31, 2019 [14 favorites]


Undergrounding overhead distribution cables is time-consuming and expensive -- over $1M/mile through relatively open space like from Chico to the workforce village and several million per mile through densely developed areas. It is generally not the best use of finite resources.

That's about how much each lane mile of highway costs. Which makes the problem worse by dispersing the population. But then again, CA cut a highway down it's coastline because looking at the ocean as you drive by is another thing that is more sacred to the state than not having fires or allowing more homes for people in the metro areas.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:09 PM on October 31, 2019 [3 favorites]


PG&E has been ditching culpability for decades and now they are essentially playing hardball with these blackouts to avoid liability because the state of California has not had the balls to make them pay.

As an EE in renewables living on the East Coast, I really hate PG&E for making me look like a hack for what I'm about to say. But I'll say it anyway.

It's not just that the chaparral ecosystem in California depends on regular brush fires.
It's not just that the pine forests also depend on it.

The climate changed. And if Californians want to know what that implies, they should ask Australians. First it means that a lot of plant matter is going to die and burn once and for all, in preparation for being displaced by flora that grows further south. Plants take a long time to respond to climate change because they move one seed fall at a time, and fire is part of that process. Then what comes in its stead will always be more prone to fire because the weather itself is warming, with less rain to come, and more of that rain to come in large spurts that cannot be retained. Precautionary blackouts are already a fact of life in Australia, and they will be in California too.

That in turn means if you can't afford your own islanding-capable solar system, then you will have to choose between going without power on occasion, and moving closed to I-5. I recommend the latter. And I recommend that California get rind of prop 13 and all the other laws that are preventing sensible urban infill in the urban corridor.
posted by ocschwar at 5:54 PM on October 31, 2019 [7 favorites]




they should ask Australians.

We're all fucked, mate.
posted by pompomtom at 9:04 PM on October 31, 2019 [5 favorites]


Yes, exactly. Just look how affordable housing is here in the population-dense skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Wait, what?


You can drive rents down if you build enough. It's happening where I live. New 20-30 storey buildings (all rentals; the condo market has stalled) are popping up, and all the 1950s-1980s buildings are dropping rent.

Of course, San Francisco would have to build 100,000 or more units to meet demand enough to have the same effect. That would mean tearing down many of Outer Richmond/Sunset's ticky tacky boxes though, and we can't have that.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:46 PM on October 31, 2019 [4 favorites]


Just before I went to bed, there was news that another fire had broken out. I wake up a few hours later, and the Maria Fire is at 7400 acres and zero percent contained. There are more then 10 active fires in California right now. Millions of people without power or places to go. And everyone living with the raw, grinding edge of uncertainty and instability, never feeling quite safe, or settled. That has ripple effects beyond the destruction.

This doesn’t seem sustainable.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:44 AM on November 1, 2019


The San Bruno explosion was far from inevitable. The victims did not ask to get blown up by daring to live in an urban neighborhood with piped gas instead of a wildland intermix where household energy needs are met by fuelwood grown on site. The San Bruno explosion resulted from criminally inadequate maintenance.

The Butte Fire that devastated Mountain Ranch resulted from removing healthy trees, allowing weaker trees to contact the uncovered conductor. Many of the October 2017 fires were caused by unlawfully deficient maintenance as well. The deadliest and most destructive fire in California history was found to be caused by a worn-out transmission tower.

Ten of the twenty most destructive California wildfires have occurred in the last five years; one was sparked by a vehicle, the other nine by electrical lines. The Woolsey Fire report has not been finalized, but Edison says the draft pinpoints them. Eliminating these ignitions would reduce the human cost of fire in California by an order of magnitude.

Mountain Ranch, Glen Ellen, Concow, and Paradise are not to blame for irresponsible actions of others upwind. They do not deserve to remain abandoned Gomorrahs, and the tens of thousands of displaced persons do not deserve to remain adrift in an inhospitable climate.

Most of California has a four- or five-month dry season, by the end of which vegetation is ready to burn. The native ecosystem is adapted to fire; species like MacNab cypress depend on it. Central Valley grassland and scrubland also burns, just not as hot or as long as the forests surrounding it, particularly after a century of wrongheaded forest management from a culture used to year-round rain.

Native cultures understood California forests and how to use fire to rejuvenate the ecosystems they lived within. Those practices are being reintroduced as the consequences of overgrowth become manifest. It remains possible to live in harmony with this forest.

Manjoo is correct that that California's development has been shortsighted, too dependent on the automobile, and needs to be overhauled. But sustainability is not sweltering shadeless summers in urban heat islands dependent on A/C. It is not seismically unstable liquefaction zones or importing a billion gallons of water a day.

California's evergreen biome, below snowline with rainy winters and summer shade, is most hospitable to a low-impact lifestyle. That is why I am here. And yes, we'll need different ways of doing things, whether that's self-reliant homesteading in Concow or apartment complexes along the future Paradise sewer corridor.

As the terrible destruction here has made us start anew, we have a unique opportunity to trailblaze and pioneer sustainable ways of living for the 21st century and beyond.
posted by backwoods at 6:28 AM on November 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


The economic fix for power cables sparking in contact with vegetation is to cover the conductors. That doesn't eliminate all risks from overhead lines (such as vehicles knocking down poles), but it wins the cost:benefit analysis by more than a factor of three.

Probably that is the best solution, yes.

This is harder in the US than it is in European electricity distribution systems because of the design of the network. The US system has to keep the LV (110v) runs short which is why American networks have extensive HV networks and pole mounted transformers that feed a small number of premises each. 220v systems have longer LV runs, much larger distribution transformers, and shorter HV runs.

There's therefore a lot more 11kv to insulate in the US than there would be in a comparable Euro system (which have insulation to improve reliability, not to prevent fires).
posted by atrazine at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Vox's David Roberts writes about The radical reform necessary to prepare California’s power system for the 21st century. "In a nutshell, the state needs utilities that partner with communities to maximize local resilience and self-sufficiency, and whose financial fortunes are tied to their performance in that pursuit."
posted by Jpfed at 10:43 AM on November 1, 2019


That would mean tearing down many of Outer Richmond/Sunset's ticky tacky boxes though, and we can't have that.

So when they did this in the western addition a lot of low income POC lost their homes forever and never returned to SF in favor of “low income housing” that is half filled while the homeless population you no doubt complain about increases. I live in a “ticky-tacky box” in the Excelsior and me and my neighbors are largely low income and otherwise marginalized. I’m trying very hard to respond to this comment civilly since you’ve basically just advocated bulldozing working class people’s houses for future housing that may never materialize and if it does will most likely be for rich and upper middle class professionals. The last thing San Francisco needs is bullshit “solutions” from out of towners.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:44 PM on November 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm not advocating kicking people out and bulldozing housing all at once. I'm not advocating for urban renewal. I just think the lowest density parts of SF could use rezoning, especially near Muni Rail, both because I'm familiar with SF and because I've seen it work in other cities. If your house was rezoned you'd still have your tenant protections, and your lease. But the owner and adjacent lots would have the opportunity to densify and add net housing units.

if it does will most likely be for rich and upper middle class professionals.

Yes, but driving down prices in the places that aren't new builds (and aren't the charming kind of old). Although you do need significant building for this to happen.

Something has to happen - people are already leaving, are already losing their homes, and are already being displaced by wealthy professionals, and SF doesn't even get the upside of more housing units out of it.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:49 PM on November 1, 2019


Re-zoning wasn’t what you were arguing for when you posted about tearing down the sunset, and I’m not a tenant, I live in a multi-generation household like most of my neighbors.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 4:58 PM on November 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


But it was what I was arguing for. Rezoning leads to building new, piecemeal. Building new will involve tearing down.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:37 PM on November 1, 2019


Precautionary blackouts are already a fact of life in Australia,

Um, what?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:35 AM on November 6, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'll have to find the links, Joe, but I was reading plenty of stories on how once you're past the last ring of suburbs, you're liable to have your power shut off on days of high risk of bushfires.
posted by ocschwar at 4:50 PM on November 10, 2019


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