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California power shutdown is a warning for Australia

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Power was shut down in California in the face of hot and windy weather prone to starting wildfires. Photo: Getty
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As hundreds of thousands of Californians suffer a third day without power over wildfire fears, local fire management experts warn a similar planned power blackout would be too dangerous for Australia.

Major utility Pacific Gas & Electric company (PG&E) switched off power across most of the San Francisco Bay Area this week in a bid to reduce the risk of fires starting amid unusually dry and windy weather.

The move left more than 800,000 people in the dark with less than 24 hours to prepare and no indication of when they would get electricity back again.

In California this week, students were unable to attend school, shops closed and thousands rushed to buy generators in an effort to keep some power on.

The outages come after the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, last year’s Camp Fire, was ignited by a PG&E power line and resulted in the loss of 48 lives.

In an eerie parallel, the Victorian state coroner in 2015 found the Black Saturday bushfire that destroyed Marysville could have been prevented if a power company had followed basic safety standards, according to an explosive coronial finding.

Power company AusNet Services was been held directly responsible in court for causing the 2009 bushfire, which killed 40 people in the once picturesque town, destroyed hundreds of homes, and caused millions of dollars worth of damage.

Not for Australia

PG&E has backed its controversial decision to cut the power, saying the shutdowns were necessary to avoid sparking another wildfire, but Australian fire management professionals say switching off power lines would not work here.

Energy Safety Victoria director Paul Fearon, who is in charge of ensuring safe generation supply and use of electricity and gas in Victoria, said he would “absolutely not support widespread, pre-emptive disconnection” like PG&E in California.

“Turning off a power line is not like turning off a light switch – it involves very long periods of time before the power is restored,” Mr Fearon told The New Daily.

“Not having power will affect communications, water supply, sewerage systems, essential services, animal welfare and industry.”

The coroner found a faulty power line caused the Marysville Black Saturday bushfire. Photo: Getty

Mr Fearon said the only way he would support power disconnection was if it was targeted to a particular line that was at serious risk of starting a fire.

“The negatives do not justify pre-emptive widespread disconnection,” he said.

David Bowman, a fire-science professor at the University of Tasmania, slammed the widespread power shutdown in California as an “inevitable consequence of the fire crisis driven by climate change and shocking residential and infrastructure planning”.

“When you prioritise utility corporations, who are interested in the bottom line, and add a litigious society and climate change, then you have a chess move that will protect the liability of the company by shutting power down,” Professor Bowman told The New Daily. 

“Their solution is not to improve by investments, but by just turning off the power at the exact moment when a society needs access to power,” he said.

“In effect they’re going to kill people because there will be people who need it to survive.”

California’s 2018 Camp Fire claimed 48 lives. Photo: Getty Images

Investment needed

But rather than blaming utility companies and turning the issue into a “legal bunfight”, Professor Bowman said the federal government needed to invest in sustainable, engineering solutions to reduce the risk of power line failures sparking bushfires in the first place.

“There are no good guys and bad guys in this story – we are all victims because the current system doesn’t work with climate change,” he said.

“It’s about the interaction of power lines, society and the law equalling to a pathetic way to adapt to climate change.”

He said the first step was for our political leaders to accept that global warming was real and required urgent attention.

“What’s frustrating in all of this is that we have all the technical solutions available but if you’ve got a society that’s denying climate change and wanting to do the absolute bare minimum of public investment then we’re going to see what’s happened in California more and more,” Professor Bowman said.

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