SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Each time the power goes out, frustrated Californians look for someone to blame.
That could spell trouble for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will appear on a recall ballot during another hot and dry season and as California voters brace for electricity outages around the state.
“It could be a major issue,” said Dave Gilliard, one of the Republican strategists leading the effort to recall Newsom. “People will ultimately hold him responsible for the state of California, and if they can’t turn their lights on right around the time they’re voting, they’re going to be thinking about that.”
The state’s three largest investor-owned utilities expect to de-energize hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses this year to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires during high-risk weather conditions, and state officials have also warned that heat waves could stretch electricity resources across the West.
The problems aren’t new for California or Newsom, who has pushed his administration to offset the potential effects on the public and pointed to climate change and mismanagement of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as the driving causes of the state’s electricity problems.
Yet as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, possible summer and fall outages mark another test for a governor whose first term in office has been defined by emergencies beyond his control and whose political survival is likely to hinge on how voters view his leadership in times of crisis.
“This current governor has been dealt a hand of disaster cards that no governor has ever been dealt,” said Daniel Zingale, a former adviser to Newsom and former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. “People know that.”
Zingale said Newsom was energized by big challenges and — after COVID-19, an economic downturn, wildfires and other disasters that have hit California over the last two years — the governor wouldn’t be singularly judged on power outages.
“People don’t like power shut-offs,” Zingale said. “Having said that, most people understand that, when it’s necessary, a power shut-off is preferable to a wildfire. In this case, we know we’re going into a very rough summer of drought and bad conditions.”
So-called public safety power shut-offs have become common practice in California to prevent disaster as climate change drives record-setting wildfire seasons.
Electrical utilities turn off power circuits when weather forecasts predict that strong winds and dry conditions could pose an extreme fire threat. The companies consider fire potential, wind models, the condition of their lines and other factors to assess the need to de-energize their equipment in specific areas.
The use of intentional outages has been a thorny political issue for Newsom since he took office in 2019.
Shut-offs are a key tool to protect Californians and their homes from the threat of utility-caused blazes. But the practice creates other risks to public safety and problems for people who rely on electricity for medical needs. Prolonged outages also aggravate residents as basic services and simple luxuries, such as a cold refrigerator and an air-conditioned home in the sweltering summer heat, are taken away.
Newsom referred to shut-offs in October 2019 as the “new normal” and a necessary alternative to catastrophic wildfires when PG&E began cutting power to more than 1 million Californians nearly a year after the company’s equipment sparked the deadliest blaze in state history.
But as the outages dragged on and public anger swelled over poor notification and planning by the utility, the governor quickly changed his tone and lashed out at PG&E. He called the company’s actions “unacceptable” and pledged to “hold PG&E’s feet to the fire” and ensure the utility was meeting safety requirements and obligations to cut back trees around power lines.
The governor’s administration has pushed the state’s public utilities to reduce the scope, duration and frequency of power shut-offs to prevent wildfires, resulting in shorter shut-offs last year and hopes for fewer such events this year.
The utilities have added more weather stations and cameras to improve surveillance of conditions on the ground, more sectionalizing devices that divide lines to limit outages to fewer customers, and improved access to backup sources of power, said Caroline Thomas Jacobs, director of the Wildfire Safety Division of the California Public Utilities Commission.
“They’re continuing to build upon everything that they did last year to continue that reduction effort” in public safety power shut-offs, Thomas Jacobs said.
Southern California Edison reported a 13% increase in the number of customers who lost power but a 33% reduction in the average duration of shut-offs in 2020 compared with 2019, according to a report the company filed with the state. Edison predicts additional reductions in the duration of outages this year.
Pacific Gas & Electric, which provides service to the northern two-thirds of California, has told state regulators that it’s similarly working to lessen the effects of shut-offs on customers in 2021.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said PG&E had made progress in deploying diesel generators to substations in some communities most affected by the shut-offs but still had a long way to go with its vegetation management program.
The Public Utilities Commission reprimanded and increased oversight of the troubled utility this year after an audit discovered that PG&E prioritized vegetation clearing around its equipment in low-priority areas, largely leaving trees and shrubs around lines in its high-fire-threat districts untouched in 2020.
“Gavin Newsom has held PG&E accountable more than any other governor that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” McGuire said. “He’s taken it personally. We just have an incompetent dance partner with PG&E.”
The dissatisfaction isn’t limited to PG&E customers, according to Claudia Bill-de la Peña, mayor of Thousand Oaks.
Southern California Edison shut off electricity to more than 110,000 customers in its service territory in January when high Santa Ana winds and low humidity levels posed a significant wildfire threat. Nearly 5,000 Edison customers lost power without prior warning during the shut-offs, according to a report filed with the state.
In Thousand Oaks, Bill-de la Peña said the outages disabled one-third of the traffic signals and backup power failed. She said tens of thousands of homes in her city lost power, and local leaders — who bore the brunt of public anger — couldn’t get answers from Edison on when the company would turn the power back on.
“People were understandably frustrated, and I felt helpless as the mayor of Thousand Oaks,” Bill-de la Peña said. “They were frustrated that the city couldn’t do anything. We tried to explain to them that this is completely out of our hands.”
Although weather can be unpredictable, officials expect shut-offs to continue through the fall as drought conditions worsen in the state — potentially overlapping with the recall election, which most political observers predict will take place in late summer or autumn.
The governor declared regional states of emergency affecting 41 counties, accounting for 30% of the state’s population, over the last month due to drought.
“If the fuels are dry, an ignition from a wind event is more likely to be catastrophic,” said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. “The most dangerous time from a wildfire perspective is late summer into the fall.”
Regulators have also warned of the potential for an electricity shortage.
The California Independent System Operator, which runs the electric grid for most of the state, applied rolling blackouts affecting more than 800,000 California homes and businesses over two days in the middle of a heat wave last August. Temperatures soared 10 to 20 degrees above normal in the West, increasing demand for electricity.
CAISO is required to carry energy reserves under federal law, and when those reserves were insufficient, blackouts were ordered to conserve electricity and prevent larger uncontrolled outages, officials said. Subsequent investigations determined that a series of factors, including the unexpected weather, insufficient reliability planning and market practices, caused the problem.
At the time, Newsom pleaded with Californians to conserve electricity, and his administration worked quickly to reduce the demand on the grid to limit the outages.
The leaders of the state Public Utilities Commission, CAISO and the California Energy Commission detailed their efforts to procure more energy and reduce demand to avoid a repeat of last year’s rolling blackouts at a state Capitol hearing last week. But Elliot Mainzer, president and chief executive officer of the CAISO, said that didn’t mean California was in the clear.
“The most significant risk factor for grid liability remains extreme heat, particularly heat that spreads across the wider Western United States and continues to get hotter every year,” Mainzer said, noting he has “guarded optimism” that the state is in a better position than it was last summer. “We are noticing extreme heat-wave events are becoming more frequent and intense. As a result, the grid will continue to remain vulnerable to high loads and decreased imports during a broader West-wide heat wave event like the one we saw last year.”
Zingale believes Californians understand that climate change and the decisions of investor-owned utilities are responsible for the state’s outages, which their governor has little control over. But history shows people look for someone to blame.
Then-Gov. Davis’ slow response to the 2000-2001 energy crisis in California, which triggered rolling blackouts across the state, helped pave the way to low approval ratings and ultimately to his recall in 2003.
To many voters, Davis appeared incapable of managing and delivering an essential service for millions of residents. Evidence surfaced later of illegal market manipulation by Houston-based Enron Corp. and other energy companies that took advantage of California’s decision — made before Davis took office in 1999 — to deregulate the utility industry.
Although the blackouts that led to Davis’ recall nearly two decades ago are very different from the outages Newsom is dealing with this year, the governor’s political fortunes could be similarly tied to decisions that are all but out of his control.
California regulators told state legislators this week that they would ask consumers to conserve energy this summer to prevent blackouts.
“It’s great if people do what we want them to do,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda. “But it’s a big ‘if’ and one of the most unreliable aspects of this to me.”
The situation could mean Newsom will have to rely on Californians to limit their electricity usage and, if outages occur, not to point the finger at him.
“He’s been governor now for 2 1/2 years,” Gilliard said. “The fact is, the governor is the top guy.”
EPHRATA — There was a police chase Tuesday morning in Ephrata. But unlike most suspects, this one had claws and fangs and ran on four legs.
At 9:24 a.m., the Ephrata Police Department received a report of a “big cat” sighting within city limits, said Heather Van Paepeghem, confidential secretary with the department. Turns out, it was a cougar.
State Fish and Wildlife and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office joined in the search and the cougar was seen jumping a fence and into a yard. The homeowner went outside to see what the commotion was, Van Paepeghem said.
The cougar unsuccessfully attempted to jump into the home through a window and when that didn’t work it tore through a screen door, Van Paepeghem said.
When Fish and Wildlife officers entered the home the cougar was in the kitchen. They shot it with tranquilizer darts and then it tried to leave through a window over a sink, Van Paepeghem said.
They shot it again and the cougar fell unconscious in the sink.
Fish and Wildlife tagged the cougar and then released it into the wild.
WENATCHEE — The Town Toyota Center mass vaccination site will see its hours of operation change next week as the National Guard soon departs and the June 30 reopening of the state’s economy draws closer.
The Town Toyota Center vaccination site will operate from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday starting June 1.
Two of the four state-led mass vaccination sites in Washington state will be shutting down Friday. People will still have a chance to get vaccinated at the Wenatchee vaccination site as leadership of the site will be shifting to the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
As of May 22, the Wenatchee mass vaccination site had administered 57,200 COVID-19 vaccines with 1,511 of those being administered last week, Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Luke Davies said at a Tuesday news conference.
In the wake of new masking guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health officials are continuing to encourage the community to continue wearing masks.
“Respect the rules of the room you’re in,” Davies said. “There’s no one size fits all solution for everybody or for masking across the state.”
Businesses reserve the right to enforce masking on their premises, regardless of vaccination status, according to new guidelines from the state Department of Labor and Industries announced on May 21.
Among the new state masking rules announced last week, businesses could choose to verify their customers’ vaccination status or implement an honor system that would assume that anyone without a mask is fully vaccinated, according to a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee.
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second-dose of a two-dose vaccine or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, according to the CDC.
“People who are unvaccinated and are choosing not to wear masks are still taking a significant risk,” Davies said. “About 90% of the hospitalizations that we’re seeing are people who are still unvaccinated, and the illness is much more severe in that group.”
Ultimately, the more people that get vaccinated, the better protected the community is, Davies said.
About 61% of people 16 and older in the state have initiated vaccinations as of May 22, according to data from the state Department of Health.
In Chelan County, which has the fourth-highest vaccination rate in the state, around 63% of people 16 and older have initiated vaccinations. Douglas County is ranked 11th with about 56%.
“This is an incredible achievement of all of our partners and all the staff at Chelan-Douglas Health District,” Davies said.
The governor announced earlier this month that the state would fully reopen on June 30 or perhaps sooner if the state’s first-dose vaccine coverage reached 70% of the eligible population before then.
“By the second week of June, we should know whether or not we’re going to be opening up early or not,” Davies said.
The state Department of Health is currently working with the CDC to investigate a small number of cases of myocarditis or pericarditis in some people after being vaccinated, according to a DOH news release. Most of the observed cases appear to be mild, according to the CDC.
Myocarditis is an inflammation of heart tissue sometimes caused by a viral infection, according to the Department of Health. Symptoms include chest pain, abnormal heartbeat and shortness of breath.
“Generally in the population, you see between 10% to 15% of myocarditis happen naturally,” Davies said. “And, it’s usually tied to infection whether that’s COVID, or the flu, or some other viral infection. And in many of those cases, vaccination actually helps treat and/or reduce the severity of myocarditis.”
DOH and the CDC are currently investigating these cases to see if they are connected in any way to COVID-19 vaccines. Like the rare blood-clotting cases with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, public health takes these potential adverse effects very seriously, Davies said.
If anything changes, people will be made aware of that risk, he said.