New solutions needed: Local and state officials grapple with Northern California’s energy systems
This article is part 1 in a two-part series about Nevada County’s energy system. See Friday’s edition of The Union for part 2.
With over 16 million customers and its electrical lines spread across 70,000 square miles of northern and central California, PG&E’s control of power is enormous.
But that extensive mileage has not come without issues. Its power grid maintains significant vulnerabilities. As Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt told the Los Angeles Times in October, the utility company provides electricity via “exposed lines on wood poles over dry grass.”
The possible dangers of this setup are heightened in wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas, including Nevada County.
In part due to PG&E’s series of power shut-offs, which hurt local businesses and residents, coupled with PG&E’s cumulative history of negligence after failing on multiple occasions to maintain its lines, local agencies across Northern California are now considering taking power into their own hands.
In Nevada County, the Nevada Irrigation District has considered buying PG&E assets within its jurisdiction, though it’s since put a pause on that decision. In Grass Valley, the City Council has signed onto a list to push for customer ownership of PG&E assets.
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Now, many county residents are left wondering how they want to move forward.
PG&E, WUI AND WILDFIRE
In three years, more than 2,000 ignition events occurred in California, meaning vegetation brushed up against PG&E power lines and generated sparks and then fires, according to Vox.
Originally reported by The Wall Street Journal, PG&E knew about its outdated lines that needed replacing in Paradise, neglecting to resolve what ultimately led to the Camp Fire in 2018.
As of late, the utility has been paying for its damages. According to a press release, the company recently reached a settlement of $13.5 billion for victims of Northern California wildfires, including the 2015 Butte Fire, Oakland’s 2016 Ghost Ship Fire, the 2017 Tubbs Fire and the 2018 Camp Fire.
These fires and their financial damages have been a part of PG&E’s bankruptcy case, which is set to conclude June 30.
Going forward, PG&E said it has a plan to make its infrastructure safer, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of its power shut-offs from continuing, nor from wildfires consuming parts of Northern California.
Earlier this month, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, noted in a news release that PG&E has been convicted of six felonies that resulted in the deaths of 93 people from both the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno and the Camp Fire. As such, Kiley introduced Assembly Bill 2079, which prevents an investor-owned utility, like PG&E, from making campaign contributions to state elected officials and candidates. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently threatened to have the state take over PG&E unless it can change its system, offering affordable, reliable, clean and safe energy.
But many, including some fire safety and state government officials, don’t believe PG&E is wholly responsible for the rise in destructive wildfires, as a report from the governor’s office notes the most damaging fires in the state have occurred within the last five years due to a myriad of causes.
As told in Mark Arax’s story, “Gone,” there were a number of small acts that gradually catalyzed in the Paradise fire, and represent the kindling of future California wildfires. The drastic clearing of forests without conducting controlled burns, overgrown brush and a population boom in the 1970s, according to Arax — and fire and safety officials— led to the possibility for dramatic wildfire. Most of these trends are common in wildland-urban interface areas like Nevada County.
Between the 1990s and 2010, 1 million people built homes in wilderness urban-interface communities, according to the governor’s report, and now one in four state residents live in these areas.
These spaces, the report continues, are home to over 25 million acres of California land classified as being a “very high” or “extreme” fire threat. Nevada County homes sit on 70% of such dangerous land.
According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, California’s burn area will increase by 77% by 2100, furthering the risk.
Some officials like District 5 Supervisor Richard Anderson are grappling with the increased dangers of living in “wildfire-prone areas like ours.” He said county residents will need to move forward with creativity in order to prevent the area from being engulfed in wide-spreading flames.
“Given we can’t turn the clock back and undevelop our land, property owners, along with agencies that have a public safety role, must do what we can to reduce the threat and impact of wildfire,” Anderson said in an email. “And we need to think creatively and pay particular attention to lessons that are arising elsewhere. The ‘same ol’ same ol’ isn’t good enough now.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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