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The missed opportunity in California’s power outage

Firefighters work to contain a wildfire burning off Merrill Dr. in Moraga, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Police have ordered evacuations as the fast-moving wildfire spread in the hills of the San Francisco Bay Area community. The area is without power after Pacific Gas & Electric preemptively cut service hoping to prevent wildfires during dry, windy conditions throughout Northern California. AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Large swaths of Northern California, home to the world’s largest technology companies, were the site of empty store shelves, closed campuses, and shuttered offices this week, as hundreds of thousands of customers stocked up on canned foods, batteries, and generators to prepare for a planned power outage by the state’s biggest public company.

Northeastern professor Daniel Aldrich co-directs the Master’s in Security and Resilience Studies program, Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The company, Pacific Gas and Electric, has claimed the power outage is necessary in order to reduce the risk of wildfires sparked by its faulty power lines amid warnings of strong winds and low humidity running over dry vegetation.

Daniel Aldrich, a Northeastern professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs who co-directs the Master’s in Security and Resilience Studies program, says PG&E could have handled the emergency better.

“When you have a utility providing power to millions of people, some of whom their lives depend on having access to electricity, whether it’s a hospital or someone’s home, and you’re shutting it down, you need to provide alternatives, suggestions, education, and training to your population,” he says.

The company has been cutting power in phases to nearly 800,000 customers, including homes and businesses, statewide starting just after midnight on Wednesday. Many people were left in the dark, literally and figuratively, and left to fend for themselves, says Aldrich. 

He criticized the company for not giving residents sufficient time or information to prepare, suggesting that for some—an asthmatic who relies on a nebulizer, say, or someone who uses a home dialysis machine—the outage could be a matter of life or death.

Number of wildfires per Year
Data sourced from National Interagency Fire Center. Data visualization by Eunice Esomonu/Northeastern University.

 

“You want to tell people very early, so that those who have these functional needs, here are the things that you could do, here’s how we’re going to help,” says Aldrich. “They could offer a voucher for every block so they can buy one generator, or for every 1,000 people, we can provide information on where you could go to find uninterrupted power supply sources nearby, or work with local governments to make sure vulnerable communities have access.”

He added: “The core of any crisis response is communication.”

Instead, the task of informing the public appears to have fallen upon individual communities, such as in Berkeley, which held a public gathering this week to discuss the outage, according to Aldrich.

This instance is an example of how, when government entities come up short in helping citizens, social networks can fill in the gaps, Aldrich says. Our friends, neighbors, and family can make a critical difference. 

“All you need is one other person in the network with a generator where you can go and spend time rather than you being at home without your asthma medicine or home without your dialysis,” he says.

Could PG&E have avoided taking this unprecedented measure? Aldrich says yes. Going back several decades, the utility could have invested more in maintenance, or cut down trees and removed debris and brush in the rural areas where the fires started, Aldrich says. The company could have also accepted responsibility for its failings and worked with communities rather than fight against them in court. 

PG&E has been mired in controversy and ongoing legal battles, facing billions of dollars in lawsuits from previous fires. In January, the company filed for bankruptcy after it was found responsible for nearly two dozen wildfires. One reason the utility took the step of turning off the power this time, Aldrich surmised, is to potentially save itself from further liability.

Aldrich anticipates that, as the likelihood of wildfires increases, planned outages will become the norm, especially previously uninhabited areas that are becoming developed to make room for additional residents, of which California has many.

“The more sprawl you have, the broader these cities are getting, the more demand you’re going to have on the system, the more likely you are to have areas that [a utility like PG&E] can’t get to,” Aldrich says.

For media inquiries, please contact Jessica Hair at j.hair@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.  

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