The Smoldering State

California doesn’t know how to run a power grid in the climate century. But no one else does, either.

The Kincade Fire has incinerated more than 120 square miles since it began a week ago.
The Kincade Fire has incinerated more than 120 square miles since it began a week ago. (Noah Berger / AP)

Every so often, Dustin Mulvaney, a solar-energy expert and a professor at San José State University, will appear before the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency charged with regulating power companies and other monopolies in the Golden State. He will research and testify about what a certain solar policy would do in the state.

Sometimes, before he speaks, he thinks about the Paris Agreement, and the thousands of people who traveled around the world to participate in a small way in its creation.

And then he delivers his testimony to an all but empty room.

The electricity system in California seems to be facing a total breakdown. For the past several weeks, millions of people across the state’s north have faced recurring, intentional blackouts, which Pacific Gas and Electric, the local utility better known as PG&E, said were necessary to avoid wildfires. Yet last week, a massive fire sparked in the hills near Santa Rosa anyway, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate. That fire appears to have ignited at the same moment a PG&E-owned high-tension wire suffered a malfunction. Now, a week after it began, the Kincade Fire has incinerated more than 120 square miles and is less than a third contained.

Southern California is facing fires of its own. A large fire in West Los Angeles this week was also caused by power lines, according to local officials, though those lines are owned by a different utility.

But these events only accelerated an already rolling crisis. In January, PG&E declared bankruptcy after its equipment was found to have caused the Camp Fire last year, which killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise. PG&E has said that autumn blackouts may be necessary every year for the next decade in order to prevent such disasters from happening again. But the blackouts do not even appear to have prevented a large fire in their first year.

This disaster can seem—to borrow a British neologism—like an omnishambles, a cascading set of corporate, ecological, and political failures that intensify one another. While “there is some fault for everybody,” utilities probably bear the most blame, Mulvaney told me.

It is not clear what to do next. There are a few obvious steps: The federal government must authorize a massive surge of public investment to help the United States escape its $3.6 trillion of delayed infrastructural upkeep. Such a build-out must account for the climate of the future. And that money would go further if we somehow reduced the exorbitant cost of building new infrastructure in America.

But even if Americans did all of that, we would still lack the tools to solve the crisis. How should the United States govern utilities in the 21st century? How can utilities both fight climate change and prepare for it? There are shockingly few new ideas.

Is climate change to blame here? Yes—in part. California’s wildfires burn five times as much land per year now as they did in 1972, an effect directly attributable to climate change, according to a recent study. That expansion affects the day-to-day maintenance costs that PG&E and others face. But the drivers of big autumn fires—like the Kincade Fire, the Camp Fire, and the Sonoma fires in 2017—are more complex, says Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia and an author of that study.

Autumn wildfires are driven by two factors: the Santa Ana winds and the arrival of winter rains. Today, both factors encourage fires to the extreme. The past week has seen “off the charts” Santa Ana winds—some gusts in the hills have exceeded 100 miles an hour—and the winter rains, which soak the environment and thus end the state’s fire season, have not yet arrived. “Usually the rainy season has begun by now,” Williams told me. The longer the rains wait to arrive, the drier and more fire-prone the environment will become.

Climate change, right now, is probably making the Santa Ana winds warmer than they would be otherwise, he said. But climate change is actually projected to slacken the Santa Anas over the coming decades. And scientists disagree over whether warming is delaying the winter rains. “Climate change is happening, and it’s affecting everything,” Williams said. “But it’s [also] pretty bad luck to get three really big, windy falls in a row, especially matching up with late arrivals of the rain.”

Which is not to say that the fires are purely a natural event: They have other human causes. Thanks to decades in which every wildfire has been fought, the California woods are much richer and denser in fuel than they would be otherwise. And for all their environmental encouragement, the autumn fires only actually ignite because people live in the woods. “All these fires in the fall are set by people, or by the infrastructure that people need,” Williams said.

And the main infrastructure that people need is the power system, which, in Northern California, is managed by PG&E.

Across the United States, the electrical grid was designed with two ideals in mind: reliability and efficiency. Power, as often as possible, as cheaply as possible—that was the vision. In the past few decades, environmental goals have been “layered on” to that dual mandate; for instance, regulators require less toxic pollution, says Leah Stokes, a political scientist at UC Santa Barbara. But this process has been incomplete. For proof, look to the 28 percent of American carbon pollution that still comes from power plants. Or look to the blackouts themselves—PG&E cannot keep the lights on and avert wildfires with the system as designed.

Americans clearly need new ways to manage utilities. But where are they? Earlier this week, the libertarian economist Tyler Cowen castigated his colleagues for failing to address the crisis. “My Twitter feed includes plenty of the world’s greatest (or at least best-known) economists. They love to debate Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a wealth tax, an idea that probably isn’t going to happen,” he wrote. But “when it comes to designing a better incentive model for California power utilities—a concrete problem for which economics is remarkably well-suited—there has been close to complete silence.”

Virtually the only new idea about how to fix utilities comes from Senator Bernie Sanders, whose Green New Deal includes their de facto takeover by the Department of Energy. Sanders wants to use existing federal authority to displace the utilities, essentially, by building enough renewable energy to power every home and business in the country. A group of leftist scholars has proposed a broad campaign of “public power,” aiming to assert public control of an “energy system dominated by shareholders and driven by all the wrong priorities.”

The idea may be catching on. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, yesterday called for California to wrest PG&E from investors and hand it over to customers and local governments.

Stokes, while no fan of the utilities, has doubts about public power. It could allow wealthy municipalities such as San Francisco to cut themselves off from the more fire-prone surrounding areas. And when it comes to fighting climate change, public utilities have not performed incredibly well. Today, roughly 42 million Americans get their power from rural electric cooperatives, a form of public utility created by the original New Deal. Yet those cooperatives are among the slowest to prepare for climate change, and they have significantly more fossil-fuel assets than private utilities do, according to Stokes’s calculations.

But what’s the reform agenda beyond that idea? “There isn’t one that’s very coherent,” Stokes told me. And past reforms to democratize utility regulation have backfired. In Arizona, for instance, the state constitution says that public-utility commissioners must be directly elected by voters. When that policy was passed, a century ago, progressives hoped it would make the agency more independent and democratic. “But now, with Citizens United, it’s become a completely captured regulatory body,” she said.

Mulvaney is less opposed to public takeovers. “We have to put everything on the table,” he said. He floated the idea of putting some third party in charge of local power reliability, perhaps through networks of batteries, so that PG&E could cut off statewide electricity distribution without actually causing blackouts.

And public ownership might unify utility incentives, he said. More than a decade ago, the California Public Utilities Commission examined whether utilities were doing enough to prevent wildfires. In a brief, PG&E responded that it wasn’t sure the state had the ability to force it to do anything about its major power lines.

That, it said, was the federal government’s job. Senator Sanders might agree.