Kent Rees: PG&E putting all of us at risk to fix what can’t be fixed
Maybe this was a dress rehearsal for a dreaded cyber attack from abroad on our electrical grid.
Town after town gone dark with closed stores. People scrambling for batteries and ice in the few open businesses. Thousands suddenly without work, schools closed, and routines upended. An instant economic down slide and blow to so many who were having a hard time keeping their heads above water even in the best of times. No, we didn’t have a cyber attack from Russia or North Korea. We got our very own home-grown mini-attack from our “safety first” PG&E!
And … we were told that they would strike again, and they have.
Cutting power saves us from dangerous exposure to an ill-conceived, poorly managed system. But PG&E’s “safety” power outages add new risks and challenges to all of us during declared Red Flag Warning days.
In emergency or high alert situations, our lives are literally at stake with so many isolated communities and substandard roads. The cardinal rule of preparation for evacuation is to stay connected via land lines, cell phones, and the internet. We are told to get out at the earliest warnings of a fire and to keep vehicles gassed up. If we have back-up generators, we are told to keep them safely maintained with enough fuel on hand to see us through an outage.
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Well, so how did this pan out during the recent PG&E multiple day power outage? Many of us who still have “reliable” landline phones, lost them during the cut. In houses without power, cell phones could not be charged. Internet services went down. Gas was pumping at only a couple of stations with lines that ran around the block. Commuters couldn’t refuel, and home generators went dry. If fire evacuations had been called, many would have missed the phone message and cars would have lacked fuel to leave the area. Without working phones, people would have been challenged if faced with a medical emergency.
Don’t fall for the excuse that climate change is to blame. To be sure, extreme conditions have made things worse. Instead, we need to recognize that stringing uninsulated high voltage lines on poles in dry forests was the initial mistake, and that these vulnerable lines could have been our undoing a long time ago. So far, it’s mainly good luck that has saved us from a catastrophic PG&E induced fire.
Just take a look if you live in a wooded area with power lines on poles. Walk your neighborhood and see how many huge trees over top the lines. Look for the fixes to broken lines from the past, those sleeve-like splices that are the signatures of lines cut from falling trees or blown branches. Many of those breaks are from winter, but all it takes is one dry weather tree drop to spark a huge blaze.
Even if PG&E goes ahead with its billion-dollar plan to clear trees in the power-line zone, tall trees adjacent to the power pathway can still fall into the lines. And the massive trees that have been removed will soon return and require never-ending trimming and cutting. Our electrical utility would be in a much better position if it had started a program to bury (or insulate) the power lines a long time ago, targeting heavily forested areas. Even if it took decades, that choice would have been more cost effective and permanently safer than what we have now.
PG&E is still in denial trying to fix what can’t be fixed, all the while exposing us to huge risks during its power outages.
For now, get ready for more “attacks” and keep asking questions such as: How do we keep communications and fuel flowing during outages? And … how can we get PG&E and our state to look at this with fresh eyes?
Kent Rees lives in Nevada City. He has been working in the area of wildfire education and prevention for several years with a variety of Nevada County organizations that serve the national Firewise movement.
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