PG&E’s blackouts in California are a bleak preview of the disruptions that will become routine in a warmer world.
Millions of people across California lost their power this week, after the local utility Pacific Gas and Electric intentionally shut off electrical lines to avoid starting wildfires in dangerously dry and windy conditions. The outage—termed a “public-safety power shutoff”—stretched hundreds of miles across the state’s northern half, dousing the lights in affluent Bay Area suburbs, on Sacramento Valley ranches, and in large coastal cities such as Eureka.
But in the warming climate, California’s wildfires are getting worse. Half of its 10 largest wildfires ever, and seven of its 10 most destructive, have happened in the past decade. Since 1972, the state’s annual burned area has increased fivefold, a trend attributable to a 2.5-degree-Fahrenheit rise in summer temperatures, according to a recent peer-reviewed study.
That is in part because blackouts—while not as deadly or terrifying as wildfires—are nonetheless expensive in their own right. Outages this week could cost the American economy as much as $2.5 billion, says Michael Wara, a lawyer and energy-policy scholar at Stanford University. His estimate, calculated using a tool from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, assumes that the blackout will eventually reach its planned length (48 hours) and planned size (800,000 customers).
Most of that $2.5 billion will be silently incurred by businesses, since many offices must restrict their hours or close altogether in a blackout. But costs will propagate through the economy. Tens of thousands of families must now sort through spoiled food and restock their freezers. Others will spend money they would have spent elsewhere coping with the blackout. And people who depend on medical equipment to survive must decide whether to temporarily leave town, invest in a generator, or risk going without until the power returns.
Of course, autumn is always an inconvenient time in California, as it is the heart of wildfire season. With winter rains not yet arrived and any springtime moisture long since sapped by the summer heat, October and November are when the state’s forest and chaparral are at their most parched. This week, the state faces another major cause of fires: hot, arid gusts that can knock over power lines while further drying out the soil. MORE