WIRED | 6/14/2019 | Matt Simon
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It’s hard to feel sorry for the California utility PG&E, considering that officials blamed its equipment for starting nearly every major fire in the state in 2017. Last year, it was responsible for igniting the Camp Fire, which killed 85 and destroyed almost 20,000 structures. The problem is typically wind, which jostles electric lines, raining sparks onto parched vegetation below. So just cut the power when it’s particularly hot and dry and windy, right?

If only it were so easy. In fact, that calculation is downright torturous. Cut off power and you risk the ire of the Public Utilities Commission: Skirting the danger of starting a wildfire could end up bricking medical devices and critical infrastructure. A utility exists to constantly provide power—to make money, yes, but also to keep society humming along.

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“Turning power off proactively in an effort to prevent wildfires is not a decision we take lightly,” says PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith. “On the other hand, leaving power on when there are conditions that are prime for potential wildfires, there are also risks associated with that.”

Still, facing new scrutiny of its abysmal safety record in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, PG&E last weekend twice proactively cut power to communities facing extreme fire danger, known as a public safety power shutoff. In all of last year’s fire “season,” which is increasingly becoming a year-round phenomenon thanks to climate change, the utility called one PSPS. The decision to call for the year’s first two shutoffs came just weeks after the PUC set new guidelines for how utilities like PG&E should go about this without jeopardizing the safety of the public.

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Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.

All well and good, but this more proactive approach will never solve California’s wildfire crisis alone. “California is built to burn, and...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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