Don’t let the Golden State go dark

Transmission tower with power lines surrounded by trees. <(Photo: Pictures_n_Photos, via Shutterstock)

The devastation of fire season in wine country and southern California has only been compounded by never-ending public safety power shutoffs across the state.

While the purpose of power shutoffs by utility companies, like PG&E, is to prevent their uninspected equipment from catching fire during hot, windy weather, the constant lack of power is an unacceptable solution for California homeowners and business owners and their operations.

Legislators are not surprised that Californians are upset by the power shutoffs that impacted nearly 3 million people last month,  disrupting lives, education, businesses, and public safety.

One Humboldt County café owner estimates he lost $6,000 after only one day without power.

In a recent California State Senate Oversight Hearing on Electric Utility Power Shutoffs, business owners, advocates, local governments, government agencies, and stakeholders detailed their public safety power shutoff experiences for legislators. These disruptions have become a consistent threat to our livelihood and economy, and it’s worth laying out some of the specific examples so we can understand the depth of the problem.

Restaurants are losing money without resources to serve customers and with locals unable to leave their powerless homes to go out for breakfast.

One Humboldt County café owner estimates he lost $6,000 after only one day without power. Not to mention kitchen staff and waiters who lost wages and cash tips from these unavailable shifts.  Some restaurants found that running a backup generator costs “10 hours of employment for one of [their] employees,”  leaving employees with fewer earnings on PSPS days.

Manufacturers, who employ 1.3 million Californians, often experience multiple-day operational delays after a power shutoff. I am reminded of an example from the state’s previous energy crisis, when a southern California paperboard manufacturer experiencing shutoffs was regularly forced to take at least 3 days to clear dried up boxboard glue out of their pipes before they could be fully operational.

The problems don’t stop at business owners and manufacturers.

PG&E outages have the potential to cause significant disruption to Union Pacific’s Northern California freight rail network. To avoid a rail network outage, the Union Pacific team worked tirelessly placing generators across hundreds of miles to keep railroad signal systems and crossing gates active. A lack of precise information during an outage makes it difficult for Union Pacific to prioritize where to place back-up generators.

What happens when laptops cannot connect to Wi-Fi, our cell phones run out of battery and landlines are inoperable?

While we applaud Union Pacific for their attempts to mitigate widespread issues, it’s another example of the statewide disruption that is occurring.

With little notice of power shutoffs, and customers tending to their own needs without electricity, businesses are in an extremely challenging operational dynamic.

One Nevada City restaurant was forced to close its doors after the realization of continued losses during power shutoffs. After days without sales and spoiled food beverages, a $70,000 loss in their week without power was the final motivation to close as anticipated power shutoffs continue in the region throughout fire season.

In addition to impacting community livelihoods, power shutoffs generate serious public safety concerns. Without power, many are unable to access important public safety information or to contact first responders.

Hospitals were unduly challenged to serve patients without adequate resources, with inability to obtain medical supplies, difficulty transferring “complex emergency surgeries,” and forcing dialysis patients “to go to the single open dialysis clinic.”

During the Kincade Fire, residents relied on the internet, social media, and other communication to be aware of the fire’s progress, seek help, and contact loved ones. What happens when laptops cannot connect to Wi-Fi, our cell phones run out of battery and landlines are inoperable?

One Sonoma County resident, who typically relied on a  landline during power outages, found the landline out of service after just 24 hours without power during a PG&E PSPS.  The elderly and those with limited mobility face grave obstacles to access help and fire information without access to landline telephones. How can help be called if there is no electricity to call with?

Utility companies only recently began these elective power shutoffs and the damage is sometimes irreversible. As one of the world’s largest economies, leaders in technology and sustainability, our own future, economy and safety are on the line.

There are many alternatives that must be discussed and explored. I encourage communities to speak up and to share with their legislators why a better approach is needed, as policymakers and regulators consider ways to develop a new system that supports ratepayers, taxpayers, and our communities.

Now that we understand the depth of the problem, CMTA is tirelessly working on potential policy solutions among many stakeholders. We hope many others will join us with solutions and further underscore that the “new normal” is not acceptable. Let’s work together to keep the Golden State shining bright with reliable, safe and affordable power.

Ed’s Note: Lance Hastings is the president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

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