Natural Hazards News

Power Outages, PG&E, and Science’s Flickering Future

As lawmakers debate planned power outages as a Band-Aid to the nation’s wildfire problem, science hangs in the balance.


A translation of this article was made possible by a partnership with Planeteando. Una traducción de este artículo fue posible gracias a una asociación con Planeteando.

See more Eos coverage of the California power outages and how one blackout threw a satellite launch into disarray.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill met yesterday to discuss the cascading effects of wildfires on the nation’s power grids as a new wildfire season approaches.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives spoke about the wide-reaching consequences of the public safety power shutoffs initiated by California utilities and pressed for answers about short- and long-term solutions to maintaining electric utility infrastructure.

“It is crazy to think that [we’re] living in a modern society where one must constantly worry whether the lights are on,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

The solutions could have an impact on the lives of millions who live in California and other western states, as well as on scientists who live or work in blackout-prone areas. Research institutions like the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) both sit in the footprint of California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), and their researchers lost both time and data due to PG&E’s shutoffs last year.

PG&E said that the outages will likely occur for the next 10 years. As lawmakers debate the web of local, state, and federal regulations needed to upgrade the country’s aging infrastructure, intermittent power may be a new reality.

“In science, you always take into account that something can go bad,” said Sara Molinari, a postdoctoral researcher at Rice University who was visiting LBNL last October during the shutoffs. “Shutting down the power every time the wind blows? It’s surely not a sustainable solution.”

A “Planned Disaster”

Massive wildfires swept through California from 2017 to 2019, killing more than 100 people and burning over 4 million acres. Sparks from PG&E’s power lines led to California’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire, in 2018. In fact, one half of California’s most disastrous fires are linked to electric utility infrastructure, said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) at the hearing, held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

To avoid another disaster, PG&E enacted the largest public safety power shutoff in the state’s history, leaving 2.5 million people in the dark for several days in October. Later that month, PG&E and the Southern California Edison utility issued another shutoff, which affected half a million people.

The shutoffs succeeded in protecting human life, but those left in the dark paid another kind of price: They drove on roads without working traffic lights, came home to refrigerators without power, and found cell phones without service. People with medical devices bought generators or went to emergency shelters, and schools and businesses closed their doors without knowing when they’d reopen them.

PG&E president and CEO William Johnson said in his testimony at the hearing that “the shutoffs were the right thing to do for public safety, even as [such actions are] not the way PG&E wants to serve its customers.”

Irwin Redlener and Jeff Schlegelmilch, director and deputy director, respectively, of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said that the shutoffs were a type of “planned disaster.”

“PG&E is, in effect, conducting a controlled burn on the people of California to prevent a larger disaster,” they wrote in The Hill last year. Even though the shutoffs were not a natural disaster, they had many of the symptoms of one. As Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said, the shutoffs “have just caused hell in people’s lives.”

Barriers to Science

For scientists working in areas affected by the shutoffs, the outages meant lost time and lost samples as well as a new source of uncertainty in their work.

University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. student Stefanie Engert couldn’t use a batch of fruit flies she’d been raising before the shutoff. Engert raises Drosophila melanogaster to study how the brain processes sensory information like taste. She grows batches of fruit flies and then images their brains using neuronal activity imaging, but during shutoffs, she said, “we couldn’t get to our animals.”

“It wasn’t horrible, but I think if it keeps on happening, and keeps on happening, then it becomes a problem,” she said. Each generation of flies takes about 20 days to reach maturity, she said.

Postdoctoral researcher Molinari lost a week of work to the first shutoff. Molinari was visiting LBNL to learn how to grow a new type of bacterium but had to restart the experiments after the shutoffs. “PG&E makes it hard to work,” Molinari said.

At LBNL, the power outage affected hundreds of scientists who use the lab’s special equipment, like its nanoscience facility and supercomputer, according to lab spokesperson John German. The lab said that the power shutoffs “significantly” affected its science mission.

The shutoff came at a particularly tricky time for one lab: Researchers at the Space Sciences Laboratory had a scheduled satellite launch the same week that PG&E cut power in mid-October. The lab had to MacGyver a solution to keep its status of mission control with NASA.

Grid Independence

As lawmakers discussed the effects of the shutoffs, microgrids rose to the surface as one way to make California’s communities more resilient.

David Eisenman, director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that public safety power shutoffs have many “cascading hazards.” These cascading effects “will only increase as our sociotechnical systems grow in interdependency and complexity,” Eisenman said.

Some communities in California already have access to their own power, and PG&E is exploring the use of resiliency zones that can be isolated during shutoffs.

The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe in Humboldt County runs on a microgrid powered by solar panels and storage batteries. During the PG&E shutoff, the tribe served more than 10,000 people, inviting nearby residents to pump gas, set up a makeshift newsroom, and house critically ill patients, according to the Washington Post.

Borrego Springs in Southern California can go off San Diego Gas and Electric Company’s grid during outages, thanks to its mix of energy from renewable and other sources. The rural community draws power from solar panels, energy storage, and diesel generators, as well as from the grid.

The independence that microgrids offer is enticing: The Santa Barbara school district is assessing the feasibility of solar power and batteries to get off the grid, reports the Santa Barbara Independent. The district is interested in part due to the public safety shutoffs becoming the “new norm.”

University of California, Berkeley has the ability to provide power in-house, though its capacity can’t meet the campus’s full electrical demand. The university’s cogeneration plant produces steam for its buildings and burns fuel—mostly natural gas—to provide a portion of the campus’s power needs. During the shutoffs, the university used the plant to keep the lights on in student dorms and power some essential buildings. The Space Sciences Laboratory successfully launched the satellite, thanks in part to the university’s power plant.

But the cogeneration plant will need to be replaced in the next 10 years. The university declined to comment on future plans for the cogeneration plant but said that a task force has been assembled to “create a plan for Berkeley that works for students, faculty, and staff.”

For Berkeley Ph.D. student Whitney Loo, going through the shutoffs “just put everything into perspective.”

“Anything can come and disrupt your research plan at this point, is what we’ve learned,” Loo said. “I don’t think anyone who said, ‘I’m going to go to Berkeley and get my Ph.D. in chemical engineering,’ was expecting to have to deal with the power going out.”

Loo urged the university to find solutions for the upcoming year. “Fire season is coming. We can’t push that back,” Loo said. “If they don’t come up with an alternative solution for what they did last year, we’ll be back at the same place before we know it.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow

See more Eos coverage of the California power outages and how one blackout threw a satellite launch into disarray.

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2020), Power outages, PG&E, and science’s flickering future, Eos, 101, Published on 29 January 2020.
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