Martin Webb: ‘Extreme Retirement Zone’
I’m approaching a quarter century of living in Nevada County, half my life, with every single year of that spent in the local, regional, state and national energy industry. Renewable energy. Vehicles. Batteries. Solar. Off-grid. On-grid. Hydro. Wind.
I’ve been on KVMR and KNCO talking about PV, EVs, PG&E, SMUD, CPUC, CCAs, NEM, ITCs, RECs, PERC, FERC, NRC, NID .… Sqqqrrkk, sqqzzkzk. (Sorry, must’ve shorted out. Too many acronyms. Mental circuitry isn’t what it used to be. It’s built to old codes. And there are bees in the wiring. At least that’s what it sounds like.)
I’ve owned or managed the top solar and local energy firms in Nevada County, helping put solar on local landmarks, churches, fire stations, businesses and thousands of homes, both with and without batteries.
For 17 years I’ve reported regularly on important energy topics to the community, with The Energy Report/Climate Report on KVMR, interviewing officials about issues related to PG&E, local power and California utility politics, and attending public meetings as a citizen, rate payer, industry player, business owner and radio journalist.
I’ve been through countless power outages and fled fires on the hillside behind me when awoken at 5 a.m. I’m also a member of many of the local social media/mayhem groups: Nevada County Peeps. GV Peeps. NC Peeps. Peeps Peeps Peeps. NC Power Outage. NevCo Resilience and Emergency Cupcakes. What Kind of Helicopter is That. All of them.
Around power outage time, I usually see recurring themes online and occasionally dip my toe into the pool of upset to write the same things. So I wanted to pen this, hoping to reach more people.
If you choose to live in Nevada County, here is the deal:
We have a major power problem here. Oh, and a major fire problem. A major drought problem, too. Shoot, and a major forestry problem. And they all like to play here in the same sandbox. Yay!
We also have a major societal problem, manifesting in poor foresight, poor political systems, poor controls, poor social rewards (egads … executives collected handsome sums while ignoring safety and customers’ needs? Do tell!), and unrealistic expectations from everyone at the bottom.
We know there is not one cause of our ongoing power calamity, so there isn’t one solution. Just underground the wires? Or cut the trees? Or take over PG&E? Or go solar with batteries? Or change politicians? Or switch parties? Pick your solution ingredients to make a solution salad.
The thing is: They’re all right. It took several decades of multiple forces aligning and colliding together in slow motion to get us here, and we’re not getting out anytime soon. This doesn’t get fixed with the flick of a switch or a vote dropped in a ballot box. Shaking fists at our bogeyman of choice on social media doesn’t help the real neighbor in distress.
It is the trees, and the wires, and PG&E (FYI, the money is gone and the bankruptcy settlement is in place), and the fires. It is the politics, plus our push into wildland, along with climate change, and lastly, the hubris of our expectations that an old 20th century clunky patchwork of extension cords should somehow operate just fine under 21st century conditions when run with outdated 19th century thinking.
Think it’s just PG&E, or blue states? Pshaw! Try Louisiana, or Georgia, or Texas. See Michigan or Oklahoma.
A local commercial property owner confided to me during a solar consultation in late 2019: “I’m renting a lot of my cottages and short-term rentals to a ton of PG&E contractors, and they told me it’s going to take an army of 400 people a total of 10 years just to get our local grid fully back up to snuff.”
No one is coming to save us. There is not enough time or money to do everything fast enough. Rates are going up 20% to pay for undergrounding the worst 10% of PG&E’s lines. The grid is such a shambles and liability that we don’t want amateurs taking it over, and no one really wants it. It’s a fire hazard fixer upper, and we’re the tenants.
It’s going to be like this for a while. And it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better.
Nevada County used to be a quaint amusement park for retirees. Now the theme park is on fire and falling apart. It is no longer safe for the most vulnerable and needy. Help them find the closest exits.
Fire will strike. No one knows where or when or how much time you’ll get. But you may have to outrun fire at fire’s speed.
Power will go out. Repeatedly. All year long. For sometimes no clear reason. Sometimes for weeks. It’s called PG&E’s Pioneer Days, and citizens had better be prepared.
Water runs out. It gets too dry. It may get to 100 degrees often. Oh, and it may get too wet, with more floods, and less snow. Gas may run out. Food may run out. Heat and air conditioning may quit.
You could freeze, starve, dehydrate, burn up, or even survive intact yet lose everything you own. At any age. Welcome, but stay at your own risk. This is Nevada County, and it’s now an Extreme Retirement Zone.
Good luck. Be prepared. And be prepared to help. It isn’t changing anytime soon.
Martin Webb lives in Penn Valley.
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