On Wednesday, much of Northern California went dark. Residents in 34 California counties received just a day’s warning before their lights went out. As weather conditions created increased wildfire risk, Pacific Gas and Electric, the same utility that caused many of the deadliest fires in California’s recent history, shut off the power rather than shoulder the cost of fixing its old, crumbling infrastructure.
PG&E has said that shutting off power was the safest option to prevent more wildfires, but this sidesteps the simple fact that PG&E has not invested enough to make its electric grid safe and reliable. The company has faced so many lawsuits over fires caused by its poor infrastructure maintenance that it filed for bankruptcy in January. At this point, PG&E’s financial situation and rising costs of deferred maintenance have left essentially left the company unprepared to reliably provide power to Californians.
As the climate changes and wildfire season lengthens in California, many policy experts are demanding that we reimagine the grid as a whole. The system we have now was built throughout the 20th century, with expectations of a stable climate and a goal of satisfying ever-growing demands of consumption. One option is to adopt an expanding system of “microgrids” like the kinds used in hospitals and military bases, and which cities like San Diego are already pioneering as a community strategy. In this scenario, cities could use solar or wind energy to generate their own power and store it, and then provide whole communities with clean energy during power outages. This process, called “islanding” communities, ensures more resilience in the face of continuing power outages. It also gets rid of the need for so many wires running through dense underbrush and parched hills.
“This could ultimately evolve to a state-wide system,” said Woody Hastings, the energy program manager at the Climate Center, a nonprofit focused on forward-looking solutions to the climate crisis. “Each community would provide a lot of power and store it locally or regionally, but communities would still be integrated and able to share.” “If ever there was an opportunity to change how we do things,” he said, “the climate crisis is it. The time is now.” Another strategy that has gained traction in recent years is Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). In a CCA, municipalities can purchase power on behalf of their residents and businesses from greener, cleaner sources, while still receiving distribution and transmission services from the utility. Stone said that he’s currently working to set up a CCA in Chico, and that it’s one of his major goals as mayor. While CCAs don’t take communities off the grid (they’d still be affected by outages), it can help in the long-term transition to a cleaner, more sustainable energy system.