When the Lights Go Out

2 mins read

By Karen Ramirez

California, the fifth largest economy in the world, is known for its sunny weather, palm trees, beaches and the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately, this idyllic Californian dream has taken a hit as recent power outages have affected millions of Californians. These power blackouts are the result of the biggest investor-owned utility companies in the state. Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison decided, against the wishes of California’s governor, to preemptively shut-down power whenever there exists risky fire conditions in an attempt to prevent wildfires.

As PG&E and Edison have been found guilty of causing massive fires in California, both companies have a strong incentive to avert future fires. PG&E had to file for bankruptcy in 2019 after its faulty equipment caused the deadliest fire in California history with 86 deaths, making it liable for billions of dollars in damages. However, enacting power outages during high-wind conditions, when falling trees on power lines can increase the risk of fire, has not been met with open arms by utility customers. Apart from the inconvenience of losing power for sometimes days at a time, a frequent complaint is that not enough information has been provided by the utility companies to those affected by the blackouts. Additionally, the outages have caused school closures, potentially billions of dollars in economic losses, and hardships for those dependent on electrically powered medical devices or without the income to replace spoiled food or lost wages. 

Despite the preemptive efforts by the utility companies, there have been multiple fire outbreaks throughout California, including in the areas in which planned outages were implemented. For example, even though over 2 million people were impacted by California’s largest planned power outage during the last week of October, a large fire still erupted in Northern California just a few minutes after a transmission line failure. This highlights the precarious situation both Californians and the utility companies find themselves in. Preemptive power outages affect the ability of people to live normally. Yet the constant threat of fires keeps utility companies playing a continuous, but not always successful, game of catch-up to try to prevent the next disastrous fire. According to the utility companies this is expected to continue for at least a decade while they make improvements to the power grid.

The planned power outages and the frequent fire outbreaks may seem like a situation only affecting California. However, it is noteworthy that a state in the U.S. with a larger economy than the UK has resorted to cutting the power to businesses and millions of residents in an effort to combat the ever increasing number of disastrous fires. This could be seen as a preview of what might happen in other parts of the world as conveniences taken for granted might fail in the face of a harsher climate. Despite that, the majority of Californians have chosen to remain and attempt to adjust to both the power outages and the constant threat of fire. Whether the resiliency of people to adapt to their environment can be seen as something to be celebrated is up for debate, as that same adaptability might partially explain the climate inaction that has led to millions living in a sunny paradise now possibly facing a decade of on and off darkness.

Illustration: Knut Samson Hultgren

Karen Ramirez is currently completing her Master in Political Science as well as studying Swedish. Having relocated from California, she is enjoying really experiencing seasons as well as making friends from all over the world.

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