As utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) continue to power society with failing infrastructure due to decades of mismanagement, Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) will continue to be the reality during California’s fire seasons for the foreseeable future.
So far, PG&E has done an exceptionally poor job mitigating the impacts of these planned blackouts on its customers. One of the few services the utility has offered to mitigate the dangers of extended outages is the designation of “Community Resource Centers” (CRCs). CRCs are intended to provide crucial services during scheduled power outages, including electricity for charging cell phones, bathrooms, and bottled water. The shortcomings of these CRCs provide one example of why PG&E needs to rethink its entire PSPS strategy to focus on serving the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
During the October 2019 PSPS events, PG&E designated one CRC to serve all of Alameda County. PG&E’s Alameda CRC was located in the Oakland Hills, far from low-income communities of color in East and West Oakland, and largely inaccessible by public transportation. It was open only during daylight hours, and offered seating for 100 people, in a county with a population of more than 1.6 million.
This meant that many low-income communities of color that are already disproportionately burdened by climate change‑related dangers were effectively excluded from this standalone attempt on PG&E’s part to keep its customers safe.
As with other climate change‑related dangers, those who contribute the least to the conditions which have ultimately necessitated PSPS events often are most vulnerable to them. For example, wealthier households may be able to afford backup power generators, and they might not worry about the health implications of these backup technologies because they have been fortunate enough to breathe clean air for most of their lives. Car owners may be better able to access resources and escape dangerous situations, while simultaneously contributing to higher greenhouse gas emissions.
In stark contrast, PSPS events can be catastrophic for vulnerable populations. These groups include people who are at risk of food insecurity and cannot afford backup power for refrigeration, those who will lose their jobs and do not have a cushion of savings to depend on, and those who rely on medical equipment at home but do not have a guaranteed means of keeping these devices operational.
PG&E should be required to center disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in its PSPS decision-making. Otherwise, PSPS events, which are intended to be lifesaving, can become life-threatening. CRCs are no exception: they should be designed for the express purpose of providing critical resources to people who need those resources.
The consequences of failing to prioritize disadvantaged and vulnerable communities in future PSPS impact mitigation planning could be more serious this year, as shelter-in-place orders have the potential to extend into fire season. Individuals at particular risk of suffering serious impact from PSPS events could be stuck in their homes as the nation desperately attempts to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Even if CRCs are better placed and better equipped to serve the people who need them the most, they will once again become useless if people cannot safely gather in them.
PG&E must carefully and quickly adopt a framework for protecting its vulnerable and disadvantaged customers.