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Why Californians may have to choose between safe and reliable power

Fires are burning across several parts of California, and power is out for hundreds of thousands of residents there. As firefighters try to contain the blazes, frustration is mounting toward utility company PG&E for the prolonged blackouts it says are necessary to reduce fire risk. Stephanie Sy talks to Stanford University’s Michael Wara about the roles of climate change and aging infrastructure.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a very difficult day yet again in much of California. Fires are burning throughout several regions. Power is out for hundreds of thousands of people, and some are becoming worried that this kind of routine could be the new normal.

    Stephanie Sy is back to look at those questions. And she joins us from the "NewsHour West" bureau in Phoenix.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, firefighters are working furiously to contain fast-moving brushfires in Simi Valley and other parts of Southern California.

    In the northern part of the state, progress is being made against the state's largest fire, the Kincade Fire. But life has been severely disrupted because of forced power outages that have become frequent.

    Michael Wara has been following all of this closely. He's the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. And he joins me now from Oakland.

    Michael, thank you for your time.

    So you're in Northern California, where I understand, even though the threat was great in the last few days, they have gotten a better hold on that Kincade Fire. The urgency right now is really in Southern California, with those infamous Santa Ana winds creating a lot of fire dangers there tonight.

    Are dealing with these conditions basically an open-ended challenge now for the state?

  • Michael Wara:

    I think it's fair to say that they are.

    The emerging science on the issue of these kind of dangerous late fall events is that, as the climate warms, we're likely to see more and more of these very dangerous moments in the late fall, where it's very difficult to control fires.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Michael, even with these fires burning in Southern California — and one of them is actually burning close to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley — we don't see the same kind of blackouts there that you have up north.

    Why is that?

  • Michael Wara:

    That's true.

    We have seen a smaller degree of safety blackouts being utilized by the Southern California utilities, although I think that may change. Two of the fires that have occurred in recent weeks in Southern California appear to have been caused by utility lines that were left on.

    And so it may be the case that, moving forward, we see a more extensive utilization. To some degree, Southern California utilities have made investments over the last decade or so that make them more resistant to the high-wind events.

    High-wind events like Santa Anas have been a more common feature of the Southern California landscape for longer than the Northern California weather that led to the Kincade Fire.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How is it that forced power outages for millions of people has become a go-to response during risky fire weather?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, I think the problem we face in Northern California is that we built a power system, poles, wires, power plants, that was safe to operate during the 20th century.

    And we have — we have, unfortunately, encountered a situation where the conditions really have changed, at the same time as more and more people are living in the dangerous areas. And what that means is that, instead of having safe and reliable power, now we have a choice between safe or reliable power.

    And California is really just beginning to grapple with the consequences of that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What about the precision of the blackouts? A number of people pointed out to me when I was reporting from Northern California that, despite the power outages, the Kincade Fire, which was likely started by a transmission tower that was left on by PG&E, still happened.

  • Michael Wara:

    Yes.

    I think that PG&E is still learning how to do power shutoffs in a most effective way, in a surgical way, rather than kind of with a — with a scalpel, rather than with a hammer.

    And they are still learning which lines they need to turn off, which lines are at risk. By contrast, some utilities — San Diego really is a standout in this — have been working for over a decade to improve their resilience to high wildfire risk periods of time.

    And so they're able to turn off power only where the conditions are most risky and leave it on where things are safer.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This is really hitting people in their pocketbooks, Michael. And not everyone can afford a generator or to install solar panels.

    Who should be responsible for a backstop for people during a blackout?

  • Michael Wara:

    Well, I think that's a really important question to ask.

    The reality is that we're likely to have these kind of power shutoffs at least for the next few years. And so we need to think about keeping the lights on, even for low- and moderate-income people who cannot go out and buy a generator that costs a couple of thousands dollars.

    I think there's an important state role here, perhaps a federal role, in ensuring that the impacts of the climate change are not disproportionately borne by those who can least afford it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The CEO of PG&E says that California residents should expect up to a decade more of these blackouts before they can get their equipment in order.

    And the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, said today that he wouldn't allow PG&E to take 10 years. So, what can be done?

  • Michael Wara:

    I think there are possibilities for accelerating the effort.

    They depend on returning PG&E to a better state of financial health, so that the company can actually make the investments that are required to fix the problem. But there are also important limitations on how fast the work can worry, mostly because we just don't have enough skilled linemen to send up the poles to make the changes that are necessary.

    It's a very large system, 125,000 miles of overhead line. So making it safe is going to take years, hopefully not 10 years. I think there are things that can be done to accelerate the process. Especially the kind of slow process of approving these kinds of investments tend to occur at the utility commission.

    At the same time, I think that we're going to need to think about solutions for customers, for small businesses and the communities that are heavily impacted, for residents that are most likely to be blacked out that involve backup power of one sort or another.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There is no question that patience is wearing thin after three weeks of these power shutdowns.

    Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

    Michael, thank you.

  • Michael Wara:

    Thanks very much for having me on.

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