As the utility company continues its power safety shut-off program, some local lawmakers are concerned over potential harm it may cause certain vulnerable populations and PG&E’s ability to unilaterally decide all aspects of a shut-off. 

State Sen. Scott Wiener, representing San Francisco, recently introduced Senate Bill 378, which would limit blackout plans. If passed, the bill would establish a procedure for customers, local governments and others affected by a de-energization event to recover costs. Additionally, the new law would fine PG&E per hour for the blackouts. 

“Blackouts can be a very important tool to reducing wildfire, so I’m not categorically opposing them,” Wiener said. “We want to prevent wildfire, but we have to recognize blackouts create significant costs and harm.”

While it can be tricky to quantify how many fires PG&E prevents through de-energization events, the utility company does inspect the lines afterward and reports what it finds. When it finds lines that have been knocked down, these are lines that could have started fires. 

Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, said Bay Area residents best get used to the disruption.

“Outages like this are going to be part of our lived experience for the next few years until we learn more about what’s effective and what’s necessary, and until there’s more time to change the actual grid to make it safer and to allow for very targeted outages,” Wara said.

It should be noted that a de-energization event doesn’t remove fire risk. In Nevada County, north of Sacramento, generators started three small fires during the planned outage two weeks ago. 

These small fires can be dangerous given weather conditions and compromised communication lines during blackouts. 

“That’s a real concern,” Wara said. “You just need an ignition on the wrong day.” 

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