Left in the dark

PG&E outages expose disconnect

by Arushi Saxena, News Editor

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It was a chilly Saturday evening, punctuated only by the shrill cheers of children playing in the yard next door. It was the night before Diwali, and we had just concluded a day of re-organizing the house, embellishing our corners with traditional Indian decorations and placing diyas, mini oil lamps, in every room. My parents had stepped out for a couple hours to run a few last errands, and finally done with my tasks, I sat at my desk and began to do my homework. 

In the midst of an annotation, I heard a click. The low buzz of my light fixtures no longer hung in the air, and I was blanketed in darkness and silence. My eyes had yet to adjust to my surroundings, so I sat there for a minute, disconcerted. 

Peering outside, everything beyond my window was engulfed in the same shade of black. The sun had since retired to the horizon, but the dark blue sky, just a few shades lighter than the street ahead of me, provided a little light from which I could see our neighbors frantically grabbing flashlights as they made their way to their cars with their suitcases trudging behind them, driving off to a hotel where they would take refuge for the remainder of the power outage.

My story is not unique. I was one of the over 2 million people to be affected by the second round of Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) Public Safety Power Shutoffs. While it was inconvenient, I understand the company’s motive for taking such extreme measures to prevent a possible wildfire. But in the shutoffs’ aftermath, fires still occurred, and customers suffered nonetheless.

I’m not advocating for less protective measures; these shutoffs may very well have impeded another potential wildfire. Regardless, PG&E desperately requires a shift in its approach to fire prevention. I believe that more government and public oversight, coupled with better communication, is a strong first step. 

Over the course of that Saturday, my family and I received 17 texts warning us that our power would potentially be shut off. Without specific details, we clamored the entire day in preparation, unaware of when or if we would lose power.

Second, as a private company, despite its role as a public utilities firm, PG&E’s primary goal is to acquire profit. By allowing members of the community on its board to lobby for the interests of its customers, the entity can more comprehensively understand customers’ needs and adjust. With government oversight, the company will be held responsible for its actions, unable to work solely for its own benefit. 

These are just two steps out of many the company can take to mitigate the necessity of shutoffs of this magnitude in the future. However, these first two steps may be enough to allow us to collectively, once again, see the light.

An abridged version of this article was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on Nov. 18, 2019.