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article imageOp-Ed: Anger and frustration abound as California blackouts continue

By Karen Graham     Oct 29, 2019 in Business
Many Californians are angry as the state's largest power utility continues to intentionally cut off electricity for hundreds of thousands of customers in an attempt to avoid sparking wildfires.
Things just keep getting worse for Pacific Gas & Electric as the latest wildfire in northern California threatens to throw a wrench into court proceedings for the company. The company filed for bankruptcy protection as it faced claims of up to $30 billion from a series of catastrophic wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Now, shareholders are fighting with bondholders to maintain control of the company, even as the power company continues shutting off power to hundreds-of-thousands of customers as it tries to prevent its equipment from starting more disastrous blazes.
The bankruptcy proceedings will play an important role if PG&E’s equipment causes a wildfire before it exits bankruptcy. Basically, any new claims resulting from wildfires caused by PG&E's equipment would be assigned top priority, along with administrative expenses like legal costs.
A new approach to housing is needed  say experts  after the town of Paradise was engulfed in the Cam...
A new approach to housing is needed, say experts, after the town of Paradise was engulfed in the Camp Fire
Josh Edelson, AFP/File
And if 2019’s wildfires are severe, those claims could cut into the recoveries of shareholders, bondholders, and insurance claimants—along with the victims of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, according to Barron's.
And it is very obvious the utility is in trouble. On Monday, its stock dropped 24 percent to close at $3.80 and was down more than 50 percent since last Thursday, reports the Associated Press.
What are PG&E's motives for the blackouts?
Quite a few Californians are skeptical of the power company's motives for instituting the blackouts this year. The feeling is that the company is more concerned with its finances than the massive inconvenience it’s causing to its customers.
Flames shoot out a window as the Soda Rock Winery burns during the Kincade Fire as flames race throu...
Flames shoot out a window as the Soda Rock Winery burns during the Kincade Fire as flames race through Healdsburg, California on October 27, 2019
Josh Edelson, AFP
“It’s so obvious it’s just to protect them from more liability,” Janet Luoma of Santa Rosa said at a Red Cross evacuation shelter. At another shelter in Santa Rosa, Chris Sherman plugged his laptop into a wall outlet and charged his phone while he waited for the all-clear to go home, anticipating that once he did he could lose power, yet again.
Sherman was referring to the latest PG&E announcement that the utility's blackout will start early Tuesday and affect 605,000 customers - about 1.5 million people - in 29 Northern California counties. This new announcement was made before the company's last blackout had ended. That blackout shut off power to more than 2.5 million people.
Already this year, and in just the last week or so, PG&E officials said that high-voltage power transmission lines — the kind of equipment that started last year’s devastating Camp Fire - was operating in the area at the time the Kincade fire started.
PG&E had shut off power to parts of Sonoma and other Northern California counties Wednesday afternoon in an effort to prevent fires from being sparked by power lines damaged or downed by strong winds.
Some 600 000 customers in northern California were in the dark after Pacific Gas & Electric bega...
Some 600,000 customers in northern California were in the dark after Pacific Gas & Electric began switching off power to prevent wildires
Josh Edelson, AFP
On Monday this week, PG&E said its power lines may have started two wildfires over the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, even though widespread blackouts were in place to prevent downed lines from sparking in dangerous winds. The fires described in PG&E reports to state regulators match blazes that destroyed a tennis club and forced evacuations in Lafayette, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of San Francisco.
Even Southern California Edison is beginning to experience backlash from customers angry over the blackouts that the company has been forced to use in lessening the chance of their transmission lines being responsible for igniting a blaze.
The Public Utilities Commission plans to open a formal investigation into the blackouts within the next month, allowing regulators to gather evidence and question utility officials. The commission also plans to review the rules governing blackouts.
In all fairness to the utilities during California's fire season, this journalist would agree that the power companies are trying to limit their liabilities by using power blackouts based on Red Flag warnings. And while I also agree that climate change is playing a role in what is going on in California and other parts of the country, there is another issue to think about.
In this photo taken on August 5  2019 a view of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Wildfire Saf...
In this photo taken on August 5, 2019 a view of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Wildfire Safety Operations Center is seen in San Francisco, California
JUSTIN SULLIVAN, GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File
Our dependence on all-things electrical
The biggest complaints about the loss of power during an extreme wind event have primarily been over not having the use of a cell phone, Internet access or electricity to run the family refrigerator. Petaluma resident Scotty Richardson, whose lights went out Saturday, said the prospect that power might not be restored for days makes him “furious, furious.”
He is also angry that PG&E has been responsible for wildfires in the past and maybe, the Kincade Fire this year. “PG&E can’t figure out how to deliver power reliably without killing people,” he said. “This is more than three strikes — it’s a failure of epic proportions.”
Because he runs a business out of his home, he says “it’s imperative that we have electricity. Everything is done for us by a computer or phone." Refrigerated foods have spoiled and he worries that the ongoing outages might lower property values.
Richardson is right about property values, and all across California, Insurers are taking a closer look at insurance rates in fire-prone areas. This situation should also bring into focus the way homeowners build in areas that encroach on heavily forested areas.
As for cell phone coverage being spotty during the blackouts? That is because many cell phone towers didn’t have backup power. “It’s like, really? Nobody thought of that?” said Alexandra Cons, who lost her house in a deadly 1991 fire that raged through the Berkeley hills.
I'm not saying that we may have to make a choice between safety and keeping the Internet and cell phone access available, regardless of the danger, however, looking at the broader picture, I also see that we as a society have advanced so much technologically that we have forgotten how to live without electricity in our lives.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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