The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: California utilities’ planned blackouts this wildfire season prompt residents to adopt solar power

with Dino Grandoni


When Karen Cakebread was forced to evacuate her home in Calistoga, Calif., during the Tubbs fire in 2017 — and when she lost power at the winery she owns — she realized the danger frequent wildfires could pose to the electricity that powers her daily life.

The news that California’s largest utility plans to proactively shut off power lines when there’s a wildfire threat gave her yet another push to transition to solar power.

“We all talk about it and think about it,” Cakebread said about adopting renewable energy. “[B]ut I think now the fire danger and the loss of power being the new normal for us, it’s prompted a lot of people to pull the trigger.”

Cakebread is just one of several residents whose concern about California utilities’ plans to impose blackouts has led them to install solar panels and battery systems to keep power on during an outage.  

This has multiple environmental benefits: By drawing power from the sun, homeowners can shrink their contributions to climate-warming emissions that help fuel the wildfires. And they are accelerating California’s adoption of solar. The state, which has set a goal to make its electricity grid carbon free by 2045, will start requiring newly built homes to don solar panels in 2020.

But it’s an option not every homeowner in California can afford. Although advocates say it will lower monthly utility bills, experts say the installation of the solar panels and batteries are unaffordable for most residents.

That means most residents in fire-prone areas will be left to deal with intermittent outages caused either by wildfires — or the utilities — on their own.

A days-long outage imposed by PG&E in October gave a glimpse of the disruptive effects of blackouts — and communities across the state are poised to see more of them in the upcoming wildfire season.

In October, PG&E cut power in several areas, including Calistoga, in a test of its plan to power off the grid in fire-prone areas when there are high-risk conditions. PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith told me the shutoff initially affected about 60,000 customers; most people had their power restored within 48 hours, but a few experienced a longer blackout. The outage, residents said, left them with some anxieties: What happens to the food in their refrigerators? To their businesses? What about elderly residents who rely on powered medical devices?

Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga, told The Energy 202 that while he’s seen a “significant uptick” in people moving to alternatives such as solar energy, he acknowledged the cost can be prohibitive.

“The unfortunate thing is it ends up being the case that people with resources, with the financial capacity to do so, can do so,” he said. “We have a large percentage of our population who does not have the disposable income. They’re never going to be able to afford solar panels.”

PG&E says it needs to shut off power “more frequently due to the extreme weather events and dry vegetation conditions.” It’s part of the utility’s plan to increase safety measures as it faces billions in lawsuits over its role in sparking numerous wildfires.

“I applaud and appreciate the efforts [utilities] are taking to make us all safer,” Canning told me. “But our concern is they’re going to, they’ve admitted, be a little bit more liberal in the activation of these shutdowns.”

Equipment operated by PG&E caused the 2018 Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California’s history that killed 85, officials said May 15. (Video: Reuters)

The cost of solar and energy storage has dropped in the past decade, making it an attractive option to some. But JR DeShazo, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, said it can be up to two or three times more expensive to invest in rooftop solar and battery storage as it is to be a typical utility customer. For example, he suggested an average $150 a month utility cost can increase to $300 or $400 a month to pay for solar and battery costs for a typical small family.

That's why potential outages should not be the only justification for adopting solar, he said. “To some extent, people are overly alarmed that they’re going to lose power,” DeShazo said. “Even if it does occur... it would not be something that would justify at this stage the significant capital investment they would need in rooftop solar and battery storage.” He said these investments are a small-scale effort by some Californians, calling it an “environmentalist household’s vision for going off the grid.”

Melvin Hoagland, a Sonoma, Calif. resident, agreed his initial interest in solar power was his “climate responsibility.”

But he was convinced after he was forced out of his house for more than a week during a wildfire in 2017. “It was impossible to breathe … When the power went out, we could no longer clear our air,” he said. “Soon after that it became unlivable.” The idea of future blackouts pushed him to invest in a solar and battery system. “We didn’t want to be at the whim of PG&E,” he told The Energy 202.

Lynn Jurich, CEO of residential solar panel company Sunrun, which is installing the system in Hoagland’s home, said there has been a surge in interest in its products. The company has started mentioning outages to customers as a reason solar panels and battery systems could mitigate concerns. She expects demand to rise as people learn more about the utilities’ proactive outages or experience them firsthand.

California’s top energy companies have looked to prepare customers for the blackouts. PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric launched radio ads and a new website explaining the shutoffs and urging residents to sign up for alerts and prepare emergency plans.

Canning said PG&E told him ahead of the 2019 wildfire season there could be five to 15 shutoff events this year, each of which could last two or more days. But Smith, the PG&E representative, told me there's no way to predict the number of outages because they’re in part dependent on weather. He said when an outage is implemented, the utility aims to give customers 48 hours’ notice and to restore power within two days, but customers are urged to prepare for an extended outage just in case.

“I believe they’re going to hit the switch more frequently,” Canning said about the shutoffs. “If [wildfires] keep going at this pace, if this is the new norm, we need to look at all the approaches possible.”


— The latest on disaster funding: After a months-long gridlock, lawmakers reached a deal on disaster aid, and the Senate overwhelmingly approved the $19.1 billion package on Thursday. The chamber voted 85 to 8 to advance legislation that would deliver critical funding for communities across the country recovering from natural disasters, The Post’s Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis report. But the package, which senators feel confident Trump will sign, left off funding for the border wall with Mexico, which the administration had pushed for. Trump ally Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) called the president and won approval for the plan. Still, Stein and DeBonis write, “hurdles remain for the bill to be signed into law."

Trump tweeted that the Senate has his support: 

What’s next?: “Before going to Trump, the disaster package would need approval from the House, but lawmakers there left for the Memorial Day recess before the Senate voted Thursday. The House is scheduled to meet Friday for a brief 'pro forma' session with few lawmakers present,” they write. “House leaders hope to advance the measure then by unanimous consent, according to a senior House Democratic aide, but a single objection from a lawmaker could sink the package until the House returns."

President Trump announced May 23 a $16 billion farm aid package to offset losses from the U.S. trade war with China. (Video: The Washington Post)

— Relief for farmers: Trump unveiled a $16 billion aid package for the nation’s farmers to offset the impact of the tariff war with China. At a White House event, Trump spoke to the more than a dozen farmers in attendance, telling them the “support for farmers will be paid for by the billions of dollars the Treasury takes in" from China. “Despite Trump’s assertion, China does not pay tariffs imposed by the United States on Chinese imports. Importers pay those tariffs, and some of them pass the cost on to U.S. consumers,” The Post’s Laura Reiley, Colby Itkowitz and Annie Gowen report. “In a conference call with reporters ahead of the event, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said $14.5 billion of the $16 billion would be paid out directly to producers, who have been hit hard by Trump’s tariff showdowns with China, Mexico and other countries.”

— Another day, another Democratic climate plan: The latest one is from Democratic contender and former congressman John Delaney of Maryland. His $4 trillion plan for addressing climate change hinges on a carbon tax proposal that sends revenue directly back to taxpayers. He is also calling for a fivefold increase in the Department Energy Department's alternative energy research and for a $20 billion infrastructure project to transport captured carbon dioxide to permanent storage sites.

— More 2020 news: Julián Castro became the latest presidential contender to sign on to the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, announcing on Twitter he would reject contributions from oil, gas and coal executives. According to the advocacy groups that have been pushing the pledge, Castro is the 14th presidential candidate to sign on. 

— Democrats want a climate debate: Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) sent a letter to NBC News urging the network to make the first debate of the presidential primary about climate change, the Daily Beast reports. “We are writing to strongly encourage NBC News and MSNBC to devote a significant amount of time to a discussion on climate action at the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debate,” the letter reads. “The facts are clear. Democratic voters across the country have accepted the facts about climate change, are seeing its impacts, and are having real debates on solutions. In this consequential election year, it’s time for our candidates to do the same.”

— “Delay means death for these creatures”: The Center for Biological Diversity and San Francisco Baykeeper have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration alleging it has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect eight highly imperiled species. “The Endangered Species Act is incredibly effective, but the Trump administration is stalling safeguards that could pull these species back from the brink of oblivion. Refusing to protect these highly imperiled animals and plants signals a sickening hostility to America’s natural heritage,” Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director, said in a statement.

— Concern about 5G impact on weather forecasts: Government science agencies are worried about how the move to implement 5G technology will affect forecast accuracy. “Both the FCC and the wireless industry are racing to deploy 5G technology, which will deliver information at speeds 100 times faster than today’s mobile networks,” The Post's Samenow reports. “But scientists have found this technology could interfere with critical satellite data used in weather forecasting, pitting the interests of science and safety against a pressing national priority.” 

Drone footage captured May 23 shows the stark aftermath of a tornado that hit Jefferson County, Mo., earlier this week. (Video: The Washington Post)

— The aftermath of a tornado outbreak: Thousands of people were in the dark Thursday morning hours after tornadoes whipped through Missouri, killing three and injuring dozens. Police said utilities in toppled structures would “present a hazard as power is restored” and warned residents to wait for authorities to assess structural damage before they start cleanup efforts, The Post’s Timothy Bella, Katie Mettler and Peter Baugh report. In Jefferson City, 2,000 people were without power by a midday news conference, with another 2,300 in the dark in the town of Eldon.

— Hurricane season approaching: NOAA is predicting there will be four to eight hurricanes in the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, out of a total of nine to 15 named storms. NOAA predicts there will also be two to four major hurricanes that are Category 3 or higher, Samenow reports. The agency is projecting a “’near normal’ season but warned that just one storm could have devastating impacts for coastal and nearby inland communities,” Samenow adds. “The outlook for nine to 15 storms has about a 70 percent of being right, Jacobs said. In other words, there’s a 30 percent chance hurricane season could be more or less active than NOAA’s official prediction."

— When I die, bury me in the garden soil: In the state of Washington, people can now choose to have their bodies turned into soil when they die. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed the bill making it the first state in the nation to allow the practice of “aboveground decomposition” which turns human remains into compost. “Washington’s new law, which takes effect in May 2020, will allow bodies to be placed in a receptacle, along with organic material like wood chips and straw, to help speed up the natural transition of human remains into soil. Farmers use a similar process to compost the bodies of livestock,” the New York Times reports.


Coming Up

  • Rep. Paul D. Tonko (D-N.Y.) will hold a Climate Town Hall at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y. on May 28.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds a briefing on the Nuclear Regulatory Research program on May 30.
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry is scheduled to speak at the Governor’s Energy Summit on May 30.
  • The Carbon Utilization Research Council, the Global CCS Institute, and the Carbon Capture Coalition continue briefings on carbon capture on May 31.
  • The National Press Club hosts EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler on June 3.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on climate preparedness on June 5.
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) will give the keynote address at the 5th Washington Oil & Gas Forum, which will be held on June 5 and 6.