The following is a transcript of this week’s investigative cover story on Full Measure. Watch the video by clicking on the link at the end of the transcript.
Homelessness, illegal immigration, the high cost of living and — fires. As if one of our biggest states isn’t suffering enough, California residents have been told they now face forced blackouts that could come and go for years. That disaster traces directly to the power company Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E. We sent Lisa Fletcher to the Golden State to find out what’s behind the Disasters and Darkness.
In California, it was a season defined by infernos. And then, from the frightening light of fires, to an eerie enforced darkness.
A lot of families live in this Santa Rosa, California neighborhood – an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. But on this night, the only sign of civilization is when a car’s headlights come into view.
The darkness is intentional – the result of a mass power outage triggered by the area’s main power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, known as PG&E.
Just up the road, in a Community Resource center set up by PG&E, Ken Courreges is sitting in a warmed tent, charging his phone from a strip powered by a generator.
Ken Courreges: It’s pretty scary, you know, it’s very boring, nothing to do. It’s frustrating, but I know that, you know, it’s for our own good.
Because the alternative could be worse. To explain, we travel 180 miles northeast to the rubble of Paradise, California, the site of the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire.
It was November of 2018, flames blew through Paradise in less than 24 hours, torching over 31 square miles. It became known as the Camp Fire, killing 85 people and destroying nearly 19,000 homes.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by PG&E.
PG&E supplies electricity and natural gas to 16 million people. Its system was built beginning over a century ago to carry water powered electricity from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in eastern California to the San Francisco Bay area. But its infrastructure is aging. It’s still using some towers and equipment from the early 1900s to this day.
According to a 700-page investigation by the state, PG&E failed to inspect and maintain an aging electrical tower, citing issues with several parts of the tower that went unnoticed.
The investigation found that if PG&E had identified one worn piece of equipment – and replaced it – the Camp Fire could have been prevented.
It wasn’t an isolated case.
PG&E equipment reportedly sparked 19 major blazes in 2017 and 2018. PG&E faced $30 billion in liability for those fires, plunging the utility into bankruptcy last year.
After the fire that destroyed Paradise, PG&E began taking drastic new measures, watching for risky weather conditions, humidity, wind speed and dry conditions on the ground. Rather than risk sparking, they cut power.
The first blackout, in October, impacted 2 million people. Santa Rosa suffered through 6 scheduled blackouts last fall.
Santa Rosa’s Mayor is Tom Schwedhelm.
Mayor Tom Schwedhelm: When are things going to get back to normal? Cause I’m not comfortable saying this is the new normal. There’s gotta be a better way. We just haven’t figured it out yet.
The night we met him, the city was in the middle of a blackout. He was working late in his office, surveying outage maps and talking on the phone, but mainly listening.
Mayor Tom Schwedhelm: The gentleman I just talked to, he’s a senior citizen, his wife’s got dementia. He can’t keep going through this.
Lisa: As a mayor of a community of nearly 200,000 it must be extremely frustrating.
Mayor Tom Schwedhelm: Some of the individuals I talk with today – it’s like I’m getting tired of throwing all of the food out of my freezer now.
PG&E’s CEO Bill Johnson defended the choice to cut power in an emergency hearing called by California’s Public Utilities Commission in October.
Bill Johnson: I have heard and read a lot of skepticism about our actions. I hear skepticism about whether it was necessary. Skepticism that we did this to save our own skin and not for public safety. The fact is that we did this for one reason only and that is safety. Lisa: Johnson says for safety, the blackouts will continue for up to 10 years, though they may become less frequent.
Bill Whalen: People’s lives depend on electricity. It’s not something that California can gloss over lightly.
Bill Whalen is an analyst at the Hoover Institution, a California think tank. He says one solution may be the most obvious – bury the power lines that run through dry high risk areas.
Bill Whalen: You have to convert from overhead because clearly every time it gets windy and you have overhead wires, you know you run the risk.
PG&E has committed to burying the power lines in Paradise and the other areas that were burned by the Camp Fire in 2018. PG&E wouldn’t agree to an on camera interview but told us burying power lines is “not a solution that can further reduce the risk of wildfire in the near term” because they can still be impacted by things like floods, earthquakes, and equipment issues.
And it’s too expensive. From a cost perspective, burying all 81,000 miles of its power lines at $3 million per mile would cost quadrillions.
Bill Whalen: Every time you press PG&E they cry foul, they say they don’t have enough money. But yet they somehow make money to lobby the state. They spend ambitiously on lobbying.
We asked PG&E how much it has spent on lobbying in the past decade. The utility would only say it files all appropriate disclosures. According to the watchdog “Open Secrets,” PG&E spent more than $10 million on lobbying last year alone. PG&E adds that’s paid by shareholders, not customers, and it “holds itself to high standards of public disclosure and compliance with the law.”
According to published reports, PG&E paid its top 5 executives roughly $17 million in bonuses from 2012 to 2017. That includes a pay boost in 2015 – the same year a fire caused by PG&E equipment killed 2 people.
In August, a bankruptcy judge denied the company’s new plans to pay at least $11 million in executive bonuses.
Also last fall, hours before the first blackout, PG&E treated its top customers to a wine tasting weekend in Sonoma. The utility apologized for insensitivity.
Back in Santa Rosa, the cost of the outages are adding up for restaurant owner Lorena Anaya and her husband.
Lisa: Any sense of what the outages have cost you in total?
Lorena Anaya: I think it’s around 16 to 18,000.
Lisa: What does that $16 or 18 mean?
Lorena Anaya: It hurts. It hurts really. And not only for us, but for our employees -They’re our family and it hurts us that they don’t even get paid either. So it’s really hard.
To keep the power flowing, they had to buy a generator for $1,200.
Lorena Anaya: I hope PG&E figures it out because we can’t – they say this is going to continue for 10 years. My business won’t be here in 10 years if they keep doing this. And I’ve been here 24 years.
Lisa: It’s a part of you.
Lorena Anaya: Yes. So it hurts.
The fire season in California is starting earlier and ending later each year. In 2019, there were more than 7,000 fires, destroying almost 400 square miles and killing 3 people.
In the Golden State, it’s going to be a long battle to keep the lights up — and the risk of disaster down.
PG&E says the blackouts are working. This month, CEO Bill Johnson wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal – saying PG&E had no deadly wildfires in 2019…and had a 25% reduction in sparks associated with PG&E equipment in high risk areas. Though – it’s hard to prove a negative and know exactly which areas could have produced a spark.
Click on the link below to watch the video of Lisa Fletcher’s investigative report: