Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Power Is Going Out

                                                                                                  written 26 May 2019
                                                                                                published 2 June 2019

            At the request of citizens, the County voted to form a Climate Advisory Committee.  While I agree that another $100,000 director is a questionable first priority, I was disappointed to see the local cynics pile on to kill the messenger. Denigrating people for concern about climate change is arrogant foolishness masquerading as cleverness. Fortunately, reality has given us a real issue to consider: PG&E plans to shut down the gird this summer to prevent wildfires.
            For decades, PG&E has deferred infrastructure maintenance to boost executive salaries and shareholder returns.  The last two fire seasons have demonstrated the bankruptcy of this plan.  To avoid incurring further liabilities, PG&E has instituted a plan for preemptive grid shutdown whenever there is a red flag weather advisory.  This strategy has been used successfully for several years by Southern California Edison, in conjunction with investments to measure weather conditions, model fire behavior, and reorganize the grid to make a strategic shutdown with minimal disruption.  Coming late to the game, PG&E has made none of these investments, so our grid shutdown will be less graceful.
            With few exceptions, the electricity used in Mendocino County is shipped over long distance transmission lines owned by PG&E. Fire Chief Jennings reported at the recent FireSafe council meeting that PG&E estimated these lines could be shut down as many as 20 times during the fire season.  The company plans to give notice 24 hours beforehand.  A shutdown could be for as little as 12 hours, but could last a few days.  Regulations require that a transmission line be visually inspected before being re-energized to avoid starting a fire with damaged equipment.  
            We count on having electricity 24/7 in our homes and workplaces for cooking, lighting, refrigeration, air conditioning, communication, entertainment, water delivery and sewage disposal.  The new normal will be intermittent electricity, just like a third world country.  Because of the short notice, we are unprepared and this summer could be rough, like an unexpected camping trip.  As individuals, and as a community, we should begin planning now. 
            PG&E has a web page with some suggestions:   The following information and suggestions were presented to the FireSafe groups. PG&E shutdown notice will be by NIXLE alert (cell phones) and Sheriff MendoAlert (emails & cells).  When you receive a notice, charge your cell phones, and fill your cars with gas.  If you have garage door openers, park cars outside the garage.  Most gas stations and food stores don't have backup power, and the few that do will have limited supplies.  Consider what makes sense to purchase in advance.  Have cash on hand as the banking system may not function during the shutdown.  When the grid goes down, cell towers may go down as well, so a transistor radio with batteries, or a crank powered radio, is a good option.  Consider solar-powered or crank-powered lights, and flashlights with extra batteries.  People on oxygen should have an extra cylinder on hand.  People with other health needs must consider their alternatives and prepare.  Business owners should decide what functions can still be provided, if any.
            The City of Ukiah is working to set up cooling stations, as a shutdown may happen during high daytime temperatures.  If there is enough water behind the dam, the hydroelectric plant at Lake Mendocino can power the Ukiah High School as a cooling station, with kitchen, cafeteria, and gymnasium space.  The Ukiah hospital will retain electricity with their own backup generator, but will not be a cooling center, and they may be overwhelmed by the emergency.  The City of Ukiah has said that the water and sewage systems will still function for most of those on city services, but anyone outside the city should consider how to provide those services for themselves.
            This is a climate driven emergency.  Decades of corporate denial of the magnitude of the climate crisis have squandered the opportunity for easy solutions, so the situation is now disruptive.  The choice has never been between the economy and the environment: there is no economy without a healthy environment. We will probably survive this fire season, but we must begin to envision and build a resilient community.  The time for complacent denial is over.