As hundreds of thousands lose electricity in California as PG&E works to prevent wildfires, the situation raises the thought about a future dystopian scenario. These blackouts are intentional, because PG&E must is seeking to prevent the kinds of wildfires that devastated parts of California last year. Could our energy policies lead to other man-made, foreseeable blackouts in the future? And is it possible for Americans to live without guaranteed electricity anymore?
Most blackouts we face are unintentional, due to storms or mistake. Hurricane Maria in 2017, coupled with poorly maintained infrastructure, led to a blackout in Puerto Rico that lasted for some residents for almost a year. Snow and ice storms occasionally cause blackouts for hours or days. Every once in a while, human error causes blackouts, like the 2003 northeast blackout that left 55 million people without power in the northeast, parts of the Midwest and Ontario. In some places power did not return for two weeks.
However, it is altogether different for the power to be shut off intentionally. That is what PG&E is doing, if only temporarily. In the U.S. we are accustomed to turning that switch and getting light. We expect our milk to be cold and our ice cream frozen. We expect air conditioning and heat. It is quite odd to hear that a power company is shutting off power, intentionally, to so many customers at once.
But, the idea of regular shutoffs or blackouts becoming regular occurrences is not so far fetched. In this case, PG& is concerned about fire. However, if we significantly cut back on fossil fuel usage–a policy many candidates running for U.S. President support–we could find ourselves experiencing similar select and intentional power shutdowns. We often talk about nuclear power as a substitute, but plants are expensive to build and we don’t build many new nuclear plants to increase the baseload enough. Hydropower is a great, relatively environmentally friendly option, but it is also expensive to build. Solar and wind power are not efficient enough to replace fossil fuels. Thus we still use natural gas, coal and even oil to produce power.
Eliminating or seriously cutting back on fossil fuel use at the present state of renewable technologies would likely mean mandatory rationing of power, selective intentional outages and periodic brownouts or blackouts. The rooftop solar panels that many Californians have installed don’t work during electrical grid outages unless homeowners had purchased and installed battery packs that pre-charged from the grid before the outage. The battery packs can recharge from the rooftop solar panels during, but it isn’t clear if rooftop solar can provide enough electricity to the battery packs in a discharged state. Even then, according to Sunrun, a company selling its battery packs to homeowners in areas of California now subject to periodic power shut offs, the batteries can be expected to maintain power only to critical appliances such as home security systems, refrigerators and water pumps.
We aren’t at a point where we can expect solar panels and battery packs to account for home electricity use–not to mention more electricity intensive commercial and business activity. Are Americans truly willing to accept intermittent electricity or electricity rationing in order to curtail or end fossil fuel use? California’s experience may provide some answers.