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PG&E Power Outages Update


Here's the downside of the way a California utility is fighting wildfires. PG&E has repeatedly turned off the power to millions of residents. The utility fears that sparks from power lines could set more fires. That part is understandable. The downside, of course, is that when you shut off the power to people's homes, you send them back in time - back before electric light, before air conditioning, before kitchen appliances, before the devices in your hand, before modern medical devices like the ones used by Jess Schlesinger (ph), who lives north of San Francisco with a disability called multiple chemical sensitivity.

JESS SCHLESINGER: I cannot breathe without air purifiers if there is smoke in the air. For someone like myself, I just - I cannot survive without power during fire season because I will get so sick from the air.

INSKEEP: When her power shut off, a friend took her to Oakland, where the power was on. But losing electric power in an operation meant to save lives can also put lives at risk.

SCHLESINGER: I live in an apartment complex that is full of disabled residents who have environmental illness. Our entire power was shut off. My neighbors, some of whom have mental illness and don't have smartphones, are not getting updates. They're just sitting in their apartments breathing the smoke. So for people like me, this is a crisis. And it's really overwhelming. And it feels really isolating.

INSKEEP: What is the utility really doing here? Dan Brekke of our station KQED covers the big California utility PG&E. And he's on the line. Good morning.

DAN BREKKE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How does the company say its balancing the various risks?

BREKKE: Well, you know, the company is looking at its network, which has thousands and thousands of miles of power lines crossing rural terrain that is vulnerable to fire. And they say that they're doing everything they can to make sure they keep the power on when they can, but when we get events like we've had in the past week - three separate instances of very, very high winds with extremely dry weather - that they have to act with safety first and prevention of fire first.

INSKEEP: And they conclude that that is the lesser risk - that the risk of people being harmed, like the woman needing the air purifiers we heard about, that that risk is less than the risk of another wildfire?

BREKKE: Well, you know, it's interesting, Steve. What's happened here is that PG&E and regulators - the California Public Utility (ph) Commission - have sort of pushed this responsibility for a lot of these other risks onto local governments and even onto community organizations to watch out for people who are in vulnerable positions like this. But you get all sorts of unintended consequences. We've heard of dialysis centers - very important to kidney patients - that have lost power because of this. So, you know, there's a lot of incomplete planning here in how to deal with people who are in need of electricity.

INSKEEP: Let's hear a little bit from California's governor, Gavin Newsom, because he spoke to NPR this week.


GAVIN NEWSOM: We've had a decade-plus of mismanagement of our largest investor-owned utility, PG&E - greed and complete dismissal of public safety that cannot continue. And we have a specific strategy to help them help themselves get out of this, but it's not going to happen overnight.

INSKEEP: That's Gavin Newsom. Now, Dan Brekke, what is the case that the utility should not ever have been in this position of having power lines that are unsafe unless they're shut off?

BREKKE: Well, you know, a lot of people are talking about this. And I think people feel that there's responsibility on the parts of regulators, on the parts of lawmakers who may not have been paying close enough attention to this and even the media, which has not really reported closely on the California Public Utilities Commission. And so I think, you know, the responsibility really is much broader than just PG&E.

INSKEEP: Could they have been building power lines in a way that they don't spark fires all the time?

BREKKE: They could have if they were required to and they were willing to award less rich dividends to their shareholders.

INSKEEP: Dan, thanks so much.

BREKKE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's Dan Brekke with KQED. And he covers PG&E. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Brekke