Tom Clyde: Lights out in California
Last year, California was on fire. They had huge, terrible wildfires.
The town of Paradise was almost completely burned and 85 people died. The worst fires were caused by electric power lines. Tree branches fall on the wires and make enough of a short to start the branches on fire, then fall to the ground, igniting the whole forest. Trees blow over on the lines with the same effect.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Trees have been falling on power lines since the first power lines were erected. Why something so common is setting California on fire now is a mystery.
Well, not really. They haven’t trimmed the trees adequately. The solution to the problem seems sort of obvious: insulate the bare wires on the transmission lines so that a tree branch doesn’t close the circuit, bury the lines, or clear the trees away from the overhead lines so they don’t make contact with the wires.
Of course all that would take gobs of money and lots of time. And the power company didn’t get around to it. After last year’s fires, they went bankrupt. So to avoid a repeat of last year’s inferno, instead of proper maintenance, the good people at PG&E are doing the next best thing: They are turning California’s power off.
Between two California utilities, about 900,000 meters will quit turning. A few million people in California will be without power. The utility put up a website that would let people enter their address to see if they were going to be cut off. The website promptly crashed. Maybe the power was out at the server.
Pulling the plug seems like a bit of an overreaction. They haven’t said how long the lights will be out, but it is weather dependent. They are experiencing a period of hot, dry, winds that blow trees into power lines. So it could be a couple of days, maybe a week, and it will happen again on the next windy day.
Panic will surely break out as people realize their cell phones die, and the corner Starbucks doesn’t have a generator. The garage door won’t open unless you get out of the car and open it yourself and officials urged the public to take time to learn how to open a garage door. Yes, we’ve come to that. Food will spoil.
People are preparing for the power outage by stocking up on propane for the barbecue, and loading the house with candles. Nothing reduces the risk of fire like lighting a bunch of candles in a house full of propane. There will be gas-powered generators running everywhere, which present their own risks. Homes with solar panels will be able to keep some things functioning.
Having the power out for a few days on a widespread basis is a real problem. Businesses close, so employees are out of work. Normal systems from your morning coffee to traffic lights quit working. They won’t be able to follow Trump’s Twitter feed. That app that lets you use your phone to pay for things quits working the second the phone battery dies. The credit card reader won’t work. People will have to figure out how to use cash. Why is the nickel bigger than a dime?
California may tolerate it for a couple of days. But if it goes on a long time, or becomes a frequent event, people aren’t likely to stand for it. If you were going to suggest the date when we slipped into Third World conditions, this might be it. Maybe cheap power isn’t such a great deal. Paying a little more for reliable power that stays on and doesn’t set the world on fire would be OK. In the meantime, this would be a great time to be in the generator sales business in California.
The power at my house has been more reliable recently, but when I built it, years ago, long power outages were common in the winter. I thought about installing a generator, but that was expensive and I could cope with being without power for a few hours. I have a wood stove and a pile of firewood, and there are flashlights all over the place. The power lines in my neighborhood are strung on the original poles set in 1937. They seem a bit wobbly, but there has been a legitimate effort to trim the trees back. Nobody from Rocky Mountain Power is proposing to shut the grid off because it’s windy. (However, as I’m writing this, it is windy and the lights are flickering.)
For most of human existence, we functioned without electricity. It worked out OK. The world is now designed around electricity, so doing without won’t be easy. But it might focus some attention on the whole idea of maintaining things. Is it too much to ask that things work like they’re supposed to?
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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