Review: Katherine Blunt’s “California Burning” on PG&E, fires

On the shelf

California is Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Power — and What It Means for America’s Electric Grid

By Katherine Blunt
Portfolio: 368 pages, $29

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When I read Pacific Gas and Electric’s mission statement to my wife, her eyes narrowed.

“We deliver for our hometowns, serve our planet and lead with love,” I recited.

Her answer: “Forget love. How about you try not to burn down my house?”

PG&E is trying. After decades of gross negligence, multiple wildfires, a neighborhood gas pipeline explosion, numerous guilty manslaughter pleas, and billions of dollars in property damage, the company finally seems to be taking safety seriously. His efforts include a massive increase in tree pruning to protect power lines, plans to bury hundreds of miles of transmission and distribution lines underground, and rapid power shutdowns on the most dangerous hot and windy days.

None of this is enough to counter the company’s longstanding reputation as an arrogant, sloppily managed company that cares more about stock price than safety.

Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Blunt tells us how the company got started in California Burning: The Fall of Pacific Gas and Electric – and What It Means for America’s Power Grid.

It begins with the spark exploding into the campfire, the fire that swept through the town of Paradise in 2018, the most destructive fire in California history to date. It killed at least 85 people and damage was estimated at more than $16 billion.

An ancient, worn-out hook on a centuries-old PG&E transmission tower broke off and fell on a high-voltage cable, igniting a bushfire that spread across 150,000 acres through arid forests and foothill towns.

"california is burning," by Catherine Blunt

Long story short, PG&E tried to invent a debt cover-up, failed, was charged with crimes, and declared itself bankrupt.

Opening with this pivotal crisis, Blunt offers a fascinating chapter in PG&E’s surprisingly colorful 117-year history with tales of admirable bravery, including a winter sleigh race for water rights to build a river dam. The winner was the first to claim a tree.

The story moves swiftly into modern times and outlines the state’s incompetent attempt to deregulate the electronics market around the turn of the millennium. Politicians and regulators were being duped by Wall Street hackers, and PG&E customers suffered rolling blackouts as the less-than-free market failed to provide reliable power. “It was arguably one of the most complicated robberies ever carried out in California,” writes Blunt.

In recent years, an even more serious self-inflicted crisis has come to the fore. Climate change is not only a consequence of energy consumption, but also a major threat to its infrastructure. As climate change contributes to the severity of western wildfires, intense heat waves and cold snaps in Texas, and hurricanes on our east coasts, we also face a disruptive future that will likely include large rate hikes, power instability, and physical hazards.

Add war and inflation and you have a crisis that can no longer be ignored or contained. For decades, consumer interest in gas and electricity companies has been limited to tariff increases (for most customers) and pollution and climate change (for environmental activists). Recently, a series of energy crises, the most recent in Europe, have made it clear that the future of the grid – and reliable, affordable energy – is a burning question for everyone on the planet.

Author Katherine Blunt

Katherine Blunt, author of California Burning, calls energy deregulation “one of the most complicated heists ever undertaken in California.”

(Shanette Kay Photography)

Blunt’s book is not a technical tome but a drama, a human tragedy packed with intriguing characters and stories of death and destruction, incompetence and victimization, wrongdoing and greed. Every detail needed to understand the power grid and how it works is woven through the narrative seamlessly and clearly.

PG&E, the giant utility that covers most of Northern California, takes center stage, but the supporting cast includes members of the state Legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission, who deserve closer scrutiny than they do for the roles they’ve played. received The PG&E conflagrations.

The security problem, Blunt points out, is systemic. California likes to portray itself as a leader in innovation, but its move toward deregulating the electricity market in the late 1990s was a disaster.

Dealing with the climate crisis incorrectly was just one of its disastrous effects, albeit a crucial one. Blunt paints a picture of long-term thinking that was ironic, tragic and short-sighted — without downplaying the need to address climate change. Lawmakers and regulators focused on an aggressive shift to cleaner energy gave short shrift to mitigating climate change—in this case, preventing wildfires. The author makes a good argument why: Green energy is glamorous. Basic security is not.

State policymakers “viewed the company as a tool in their quest to mitigate the long-term effects of climate change with ambitious renewable energy mandates,” writes Blunt. “In doing so, they failed to recognize that a changing climate has made PG&E’s power lines an imminent threat to the state.”

An important lesson learned: Since modern life is totally dependent on massive power supplies and other forms of energy, a laissez-faire market for large-scale power generation will not work.

California’s largest utilities need to find a way to generate a return for shareholders without compromising safety and reliability. This applies to the energy grid we have today, but is particularly urgent as the clean energy transition accelerates (as is often mandated by the government, which last week announced a complete phase-out of gas-powered cars by 2035). As PG&E and others solve today’s problems, they must solve tomorrow’s — most predictably, the challenge of keeping interest rates low enough to avoid public backlash.

When past is prologue, it’s important to ask if they’re up to the task. Californians might want to pay more attention. Review: Katherine Blunt’s “California Burning” on PG&E, fires

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