To Burn or Not to Burn? That is the Question this Special Election.

Scene from Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, via YouTube.

Had enough of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Public Safety Power Shutdowns yet? I have. The generator’s been throbbing away in the garage all weekend, it’s hard to think with that damned thing running, let alone write, and I was looking forward to shutting it down Monday morning.

But alas! I walked up to the power pole this morning to check the electric meter and still no juice. When I got back to my desk, an email message from PG&E awaited me:

“PG&E Safety Update: Potential of another PSPS event Tuesday 10/29. We’ll make every effort to restore power between events. Please use that opportunity to charge any essential equipment.”

I immediately checked the Weather Channel for Whitmore, the scattered village of 800 souls where I live in the heavily forested foothills 30 miles east of Redding. Sure enough, 15 mph winds from out of the northeast are forecast for Tuesday morning. Another diablo wind event is in the making.

Somehow, I don’t think PG&E is going to “make every effort” to re-energize its massive electrical grid just to shut it down six hours later. We could be on the generator for the rest of the week, and the solace that 2 million of my fellow northern Californians may be in the same boat is beginning to wear thin.

Not that I’m complaining. The forecast for last Saturday afternoon was originally 15 mph winds. PG&E cut the power around 5:30 pm, just as a warm moderate breeze began stirring the towering pines surrounding the house. The breeze picked up speed as it rolled in and by midnight it was shrieking through the treetops. I slept a little sounder knowing the towering high-voltage transmission lines cutting through the woods five miles west were de-energized.

The residents of Geyserville weren’t quite so fortunate. Two days before PG&E’s latest shutdown, a wildfire allegedly sparked by a PG&E transmission line failure broke out and quickly consumed 30,000 acres of Sonoma County wine country. On Sunday, the Kincade Fire exploded, doubling in size as warm, dry diablo winds roared into the North Bay with gusts of up to 90 mph.

According to Cal Fire, the Kincade Fire grew to 66,231 acres by Monday morning with just 5 percent containment. Fear that blowing embers from the wildfire might jump Highway 101 and burn all the way to Bodega Bay has forced the evacuation of 200,000 Sonoma County residents. So far, 96 structures have been destroyed. Two fire fighters have been injured, but there have been no fatalities.

The fiery images coming out of Sonoma County, like those from the Carr and Camp Fires last year, are literally apocalyptic. The Lamb of God has opened the Book of Revelation’s seventh seal and the first angel’s trumpet has sounded, followed by hail and fire mixed with blood, a third part of the trees burned up and all of the green grass. Northern California is starting to have an End Times vibe to it.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” I whisper to myself every time another town goes up in smoke. It’s never too late to accept Pascal’s wager.

Contours of Kincade Fire in Sonoma County, via Cal Fire.

State of Emergency

I’m waxing religious because the more I study and learn about this particular problem—providing reliable electricity to 40 million Californians in a fire-prone landscape that’s worsening with the onset of anthropogenic global warming—the less I’m convinced we’re up to the task. We lack the resources and the will to do the job.

A depressingly titled article, “Why California Will Continue To Burn,” published by Vice last April, includes some astonishing figures regarding the price tag of the work to be done and the damage done so far.

“The federal judge overseeing PG&E’s ongoing probation presented a safety proposal for the utility that would see 650,000 workers remove 100 million trees and inspect and repair thousands of miles of line,” Vice reported. “PG&E claimed the plan would cost $150 billion.”

PG&E, which even in bankruptcy is still worth $20 billion, faces liabilities from various wildfire lawsuits in excess of $30 billion. It would have to jack up electrical rates considerably to implement such an expensive plan, which the judge ultimately withdrew.

If PG&E can’t safely maintain its overhead powerlines, why not just bury them underground? An informative article in the Desert Sun explains that’s too expensive as well, again according to PG&E.

“It costs about $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead, while the cost to build a mile of new overhead line is less than a third of that, at approximately $800,000 per mile,” the report states.

“California has 25,526 miles of higher voltage transmission lines, and 239,557 miles of distribution lines, two-thirds of which are overhead, according to CPUC. Less than 100 miles per year are transitioned underground, meaning it would take more than 1,000 years to underground all the lines at the current rate.”

Clearly, as Gov. Gavin Newsom recently declared, we’re in a state of emergency. The Vice article explores taking advantage of the crisis by gradually shifting to smaller, localized distributed grids powered by wind, solar and other renewable resources, but then throws water on the proposal.

The entrenched special interests of the state’s large investor owned utilities—PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric—may not be able to safely maintain their large, aging electrical grids or keep them energized, but they have no intention of giving them up.

AD-1 Republican candidate Megan Dahle and her donors, including Sempra Energy.

The Lights May Be Out, But the Special Election Is Still On

There’s only one candidate taking money from Sacramento’s entrenched special interests in next Tuesday’s special election for Assembly District 1, and that’s Republican Megan Dahle. In addition to Big Pharma and Big Tobacco donors, Selma Energy, which owns San Diego Gas and Electric, has donated a total of $27,600 to Dahle and her political action committee, according to Cal-Access.

Sempra Energy was ordered to pay $2.4 billion in damages related to three fires caused by poorly maintained San Diego Gas and Electric equipment in 2007. Those lawsuits are being used as a template in the current litigation against PG&E, which has donated more than $16,000 to Dahle’s husband, Sen. Brian Dahle, over the years.

Indeed, PG&E increased its spending on lobbying nearly eight-fold in 2018, to $8.53 million, buying politicians from both sides, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, who received $200,000 for his campaign.

What do you get when giant monopolized investor owned utilities buy your government? You get investor owned utilities that don’t do their maintenance, can’t keep the lights on and occasionally burn your house down.

Is this the new normal? I’m afraid it might be. I’m starting to feel like civilization’s gotten too big for its own britches.

On a more optimistic note, there’s one candidate running for AD-1 in the special election Tuesday, Nov. 5 who says this doesn’t have to be the new normal. It cheered me up when Democrat Elizabeth Betancourt turned up in my Facebook feed with her new Honda generator on Saturday.

AD-1 Democratic candidate Elizabeth Betancourt says this doesn’t have to be the new normal.

“Bought a generator for the farm today in anticipation of another round of PG&E shut offs,” the candidate posted. “These shut offs are unacceptable and should not be our ‘new normal.’ While an understandable stopgap measure in protecting human life and property from their outmoded, underfunded power infrastructure, they are negatively affecting schools and families, putting at risk individual health and safety, and potentially costing local businesses, rural economies and residents as much as $1 billion.”

“This isn’t PG&E’s line staff and employees; this is upper management,” Betancourt continued. “Wall Street investors are driving the corporate culture of profiting shareholders at any cost. We must have tougher laws and oversight to make sure the rates we pay are invested back into reliable and safe delivery of affordable power for our communities. To do this, we need a representative who is independent of corporate donors; that’s why I’m the only candidate in this race that refuses to take money from PG&E.”

That’s the sort of substantive remarks about serious issues I’ve come to expect from Betancourt, an environmental scientist and small farmer who’s facing an uphill battle against Sen. Dahle’s political machine, comprised of corporations and public safety unions.

Meanwhile, Megan Dahle’s campaign Facebook page has been mum on the latest widespread blackout. It has transformed into a sort of weaponized chain letter, multi-level marketing rendered in baby shower hues designed to boost turnout without actually saying who the candidate is, what she stands for or who’s footing the bill.

“#Get 10 Votes. Tag 10. Text 10. Call 10.”

From Megan Dahle’s Facebook campaign page.

Awesome. Mindless voting, just what the world needs now.

The generator’s throbbing in the background; as expected PG&E hasn’t turned the power back on. If you like the way things are going, vote for Dahle, I assure you they’ll remain the same.

Can Betancourt make a difference, if elected? I’ll be honest, I’m beginning to think that all of us working together 24/7 won’t be enough to stop the coming apocalypse, let alone one person by themselves.

But electing Betancourt would at least be a step in the right direction.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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