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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
The PG&E blackout debacle is an enormous, sprawling story, a Homeric epic of institutional dysfunction going back decades. Homer, however, I am not, so in this brief prose poem I’ll cover developments in the last few days, take a detour into an interesting technology (mini-grids), and conclude by fitting the PG&E blackouts into our continuing “Jackpot” storyline. If you haven’t read Yves’ round-up from Thursday, please do so; the comments are also very rich, even for the NC commentariat.
PG&E Blackout Round-Up
First, as American surrealist and Burbank resident Johnny Carson used to say, “More to Come,” since the risk of wildfires is increasing. Quartz:
Such “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” aren’t going away. As transmission lines age and electricity loads increase, the risk grows that a new wildfire will break out. Power lines ignite fires after branches brush against them, or transmission poles snap, leaving live wires. Clearing trees and brush can take years, and improving infrastructure even longer. That’s compounded by extreme weather driven by climate change, which has turned America’s western forests into furnaces in waiting. Years of extreme droughts, followed by torrential rains, have left California’s wild lands full of dead and dying trees, as well as fresh growth to fuel new flames.
All can be mitigated, with money and a level of effort, but not in the next year, or even the next decade. Second, although safety is indeed a concern for PG&E, the bankruptcy proceedings in which it has enmeshed itself figure largely as well. From Wired, “California’s Power Outages Are About Wildfires—But Also Money“:
A core function of bankruptcy is to let a business continue to operate while it figures out what it owes, and to whom. PG&E has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to figure that out. “If the assumptions in your analysis turn out to be wrong, your whole strategy can blow up and be immensely costly, and delay your bankruptcy,” says Jared Ellias, an expert in bankruptcy law at UC Hastings College of the Law. That means you try to get through it fast, and with minimal chaos.
A wildfire would definitely qualify as chaos. In large part, that’s because of the damages PG&E is on the hook for. Expenses incurred during a bankruptcy take precedence over the ones from before the bankruptcy. The bills are, in the language of the law, “senior.” …
The rules get more complicated than that. This summer California passed a law called AB 1054, which set terms for how PG&E will pay out claims for previous fires and established a $20 billion insurance fund to pay future claims. That carefully negotiated, controversial plan didn’t take into account what would happen if a massive fire happened right now. “Of greater significance to PG&E is the fact that it cannot access the ‘insurance’ fund established by AB 1054 for fires this season,” writes Mike Danko, a lawyer representing fire victims, in an email. “Those funds would be available to PG&E for fires beginning in 2020, at the earliest—another reason for PG&E to protect itself at the expense of the ratepayers by turning off power, even if not really necessary.”…
PG&E then looks, let’s say, highly incentivized…. Yes, shutting off the power was about public safety. But in this case, that decision was at least semi-aligned with bankruptcy prep and shareholder value. “The company is currently controlled by the board of directors, who work for the shareholders, and the shareholders sit behind pre-bankruptcy fire victims in the pecking order,” Ellias of UC Hastings says. “So from their perspective, .”
Third, during the blackout itself (!), the bankruptcy parameters changed. From Bloomberg, “PG&E Plunges on Fear of Total Wipeout by New Bankruptcy Plan“:
PG&E Corp. shares plunged as it grappled with a court ruling that threatens to put the fate of the bankrupt power giant in the hands of outsiders and perhaps wipe out the stock.
The shares dropped as much as 32% Thursday after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali stripped PG&E the previous day of exclusive control over its recovery process.
The decision escalates an already-heated battle for control of the largest utility bankruptcy in U.S. history. Montali agreed to let bondholders including Pacific Investment Management Co. and Elliott Management Corp. pitch their own restructuring plan alongside PG&E’s, so they can both come up with ways the utility could deal with an estimated $30 billion in wildfire liabilities. Some of PG&E’s bonds jumped to their highest levels in almost two years.
(Here is the bankruptcy docket; here is PG&E’s ownership.) Elliott Management is run by Paul Singer, characterized by the New Yorker as “the world’s most feared investor,” and by his own Wikipedia entry (!) as a “vulture capitalist.”) As a result, “PG&E Shares Have 75% Chance of Falling to $0, Citigroup Says” (The Street) as Citigroup analyst Praful Mehta “says the bankruptcy exit plan proposed by bondholders led by Elliott Management group has the best chance of being approved by the judge overseeing the company’s bankruptcy proceedings.”
Finally, PG&E — as one expects, at this point — has had several PR stumbles.”PG&E Holds Wine Tasting Event on Anniversary of Deadly Fires” is a headline you just don’t want to see. More seriously, from the New York Times, “‘This Did Not Go Well’: Inside PG&E’s Blackout Control Room“:
Things quickly began going wrong. PG&E’s communications and computer systems faltered, and its website went down as customers tried to find out whether they would be cut off or spared. As the company struggled to tell people what areas would be affected and when, chaos and confusion unspooled outside. Roads and businesses went dark without warning, nursing homes and other critical services scrambled to find backup power and even government agencies calling the company were put on hold for hours.
If “control” is the word we want.
New Hope for the Grid?
As readers know, I’m a meliorist. So I don’t want to write about climate issues like wildfires without presenting some hopeful development; fear is not adaptive if it only immobilizes. In the case of the state of California’s power grid — depending, I grant, on a political level of effort, in addition to “the market” — one such development is mini-grids.
To begin, PG&E’s strategy is one of triage, and it didn’t start with this blackout. From CityLab, “Why the Bay Area Is Having a Massive Power Outage“:
PG&E began the practice of preemptively shutting off its electricity grid during high-risk periods in 2018, after the utility’s fragile and poorly maintained power lines, surrounded by untrimmed trees, helped ignite the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California. More than 80 people were killed in the wildfire, and thousands of homes turned to ash.
Over the past year, four similar planned safety outages were held, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that has been critical of the PG&E shutdown. But those affected primarily Napa and Sonoma counties, and lasted only about 24 hours at a time. In 2013, San Diego Gas & Electric became the first California utility to cut power during dry conditions, according to the Wall Street Journal; its largest shut-off only affected about 20,800 people.
Now, triage is institutionalized. From Vice, “This Is Why California Will Keep Burning“:
After such a devastating stretch of fires, the idea of temporarily shutting down or “de-energizing” the grid is gaining traction. It’s the backbone of PG&E’s 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan, which calls for shutting off the power to parts of more than 30,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines during high fire-risk weather.
However, on the brighter side, it’s possible to develop new approaches in those triaged areas from which a reliable source of power has been withdrawn:
The immediate strategy for dealing with an old grid under new pressures is simply to shut down the power on especially hot, windy days. So-called “de-energizing” is arguably the best infrastructure fix the state currently has for wildfire. But it’s controversial policy, affecting thousands of customers, and potentially even endangering those who require electrical power for equipment they need to live.
Yet it’s also an unusual opportunity to build something better—a more resilient, clean, distributed electrical grid, at least on a small scale, starting in wildfire country. California’s dire climate crisis could be the impetus for what some have called a kind of mini Green New Deal, something to address a crucial need for the state at the vanguard of some of the worst, most violent effects of climate change the country has seen yet.
Most advocates of resilient microgrids aren’t suggesting the state tear out all the existing transformers and power lines, but make them redundant over time with the installation of these networked little grids. The prospect of a distributed grid is less infrastructure anarchy than making the old monopoly system more environmentally responsible, more efficient, and more resilient.
Here is one example at the municipal level from the Los Angeles Times, “California’s wildfire threat could be an opportunity for clean-energy microgrid“:
To the untrained eye, the shipping containers clustered on the outskirts of Borrego Springs don’t look like an innovative clean-energy technology that could help California cope with wildfires.
But these containers, in the remote desert of eastern San Diego County, are packed with lithium-ion batteries — and they’re part of one of the world’s most advanced microgrids. It combines solar panels, diesel generators, energy storage and something called an ultracapacitor to power Borrego Springs, even when electricity isn’t flowing through the single transmission line that connects the town to the main power grid.
Here is an example at the household level. From Quartz, “California’s wildfires may be the best thing to happen to home batteries“:
The market for residential batteries remains is small — only a few hundred megawatt-hours were installed in 2018. But it’s growing tenfold year-over-year, reports Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. Home solar company Sunrun has installed 5,000 of its Brightbox systems — solar panels and lithium-ion batteries with eight to 12 hours of backup power — in the US and expects sales to double this year. “We are seeing increased consumer awareness of outages due to [the California] wildfires and receiving more questions from customers about home batteries,” said spokesperson Georgia Dempsey of Sunrun.
That’s the pattern after most natural disasters, says Nick Liberati of EnergySage, an online marketplace where people buy and sell home solar panels and batteries. After massive hurricanes struck Texas and Florida in 2017, EnergySage saw installations of the systems surge on its platform. Similarly, in Puerto Rico, record numbers of the island’s residents installed home battery systems after Hurricane Maria cut power for months. The pattern appears to be holding in California.
And if these distributed solutions move from back-up power to substitute power sources, we would end up with a more resilient and less fire-prone grid:
Local solar power paired with batteries can provide reliable energy and keep electricity running for communities in need, particularly at times when a power line needs to be turned off for safety reasons. This technology might also reduce the chances of electric sparks on overhead lines, which could result in dangerous wildfires.
Electrical lines can only safely carry a certain amount of power without getting too hot. When an electric line heats up with too much energy running through it, the line can sag and drop closer to potential hazards.
If communities were to deploy more local solar and batteries, we could reduce the amount of power flowing through electricity lines, and coordinate with utilities in real time, leading to an improved scenario for utilities to carry out maintenance, reroute power in case of problems, and ensure overall safety of fire-prone communities.
Now, of course there are issues. Utilities make connections to their own grid difficult, and in some cases make it impossible to run solar without connecting to the grid. Nor are microgrids incentivized or standardized. Most are at the demonstration stage. So it doesn’t do, to get too enthusiastic:
“It doesn’t seem like we have the technical capabilities right now to do systemwide microgrids that can withstand multiday outage events,” said Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division. “Even if that’s where we end up going as a state as a long-term solution, you can’t just plug in a bunch of batteries and [protect] communities in the next six months.”
But “right now’ and “in the next six months” doesn’t mean anything like “never.” (To temper my hopefulness, it’s not clear to me how residential batteries and solar would withstand flying embers, for example — the main cause of wildfires spreading. But that strikes me as an engineering problem and by no means insoluble.)
NC has taken the concept of “The Jackpot” from William Gibson (and I wish he’d finish his new book. Who does he think he is? George R.R. Martin?) Gibson’s riff is quite extended (see here for context and a complete extract) but this paragraph will be sufficient for our purposes:
[The Jackpot] was androgenic, [he, Wilf] said, and [she, Flynn] knew from Ciencia Loca and National Geographic that meant because of people. Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’d caused it anyway. And in fact the actual climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things. How that got worse and never better, and was just expected to, ongoing. Because people in the past, clueless as to how that worked, had fucked it all up, then not been able to get it together to do anything about it, even after they knew, and now it was too late.
So now, in her day, he said, they were headed into ….
So, we might look at the California wildfires (“androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad sh*t”) and the PG&E debacle (“got worse and never better”) as a sort of exemplar of what is to come if nothing is done, taking California as a sort of fractal pattern for the larger world.
First, the impotence and absurdity of the political class. Headline: “[California Governor] Newsom signs laws on drilling, fur sales, circuses and beach smoking.” Even: “California adopts nation’s broadest gun seizure laws.” These are all very well in themselves — reminiscent though they be of Bill Clinton’s famous triangulation toward school uniforms — but California has enormous problems of an entirely different scale that don’t figure in “the conversation.” Take CalPERS — please! The largest pension fund in the fifth largest economy in the world is run by crooks! And the same goes for our topic today. Here’s Governor Newsome on PG&E:
[NEWSOME:] This is not a climate change story as much as a story about greed and mismanagement over the course of decades. Neglect, a desire to advance not public safety but profits. What has occurred in the last 48 hours is unacceptable. … We’re seeing the scale and scope of something no state in the 21st century should experience.
[HILL:] I think it is excessive. PG&E clearly hasn’t made its system safe. These shutdowns are supposed to be surgical. But shutting down power to 800,000 people in 31 counties is by no means surgical. This cannot be something that can be acceptable nor long-term. .
Wrong. You are Third World. Not only is California a one-party state with a corrupt and dysfunctional political class, it has Third World levels of inequality. From the San Jose Mercury News, “Income inequality is on the rise in California. In some Bay Area counties, the disparities are extreme“:
California is the Golden State — at least for those at the top of the income scale. For everyone else, the nickname may apply more to the sun than to money.
That’s one takeaway of a recent analysis of U.S.Census Bureau data by the California Budget and Policy Center (CBPC), which found a widening gap between the state’s haves and have-nots.
The CBPC analysis found major gains for California’s richest residents, modest gains for people with median incomes, and losses for the lowest income earners when adjusted for inflation.
Median household income in California, the CBPC reported, increased by 6.4%, from $70,744 in 2006 to $75,277 in 2018, adjusting for inflation. But for the top 5% of households, income grew by 18.6%, from $426,851 in 2006 to $506,421 in 2018, while households in the bottom 20% saw their average income fall by 5.3%, from $16,441 in 2006 to $15,562 in 2018. The analysis was based on the census agency’s latest American Community Survey report.
From the Daily Beast:
By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.
At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country—23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally—worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.
So, how would be you expect the oligarchy running a Third World country like California to handle a power outage? You would expect the weak to be written off (exactly as happened with New Orleans after Katrina, and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria). Here is where the blackouts did not happen:
Hundreds of thousands of homes across California are without power. But chunks of Bay Area remain conspicuously absent from outage maps: The seats of power for nearly every major tech giant. https://t.co/GFoLMY7OWj pic.twitter.com/Qb94PYrFoB
— WIRED (@WIRED) October 10, 2019
And here’s what happened where the blackouts hit. From the San Francisco Chronicle, “‘I’m overwhelmed’: PG&E power shut-offs leave ill and disabled struggling“:
Napa resident Gina Biter-Mundt said that’s a common problem among people who have health issues — they lack the mobility, or the money, to prepare appropriately, even if they are well informed.
The power went out at Biter-Mundt’s house after midnight Wednesday. She uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, plus a special bed that relies on electricity to lift her up and down so she can sleep safely and get herself into her wheelchair. She’s a disability rights advocate and even teaches disaster preparation classes, and she has a backup generator and a lithium battery to keep her equipment charged.
But even with all of her preparation, she said that her wheelchair would probably last only two more days before running out of power.
And who will be hurt when power outages are more widespread? Popular Science, “California’s massive power outage is a wake-up call for the whole country“:
It’s not just PG&E. Circumstances in California are just a particularly extreme example of something that’s happening across the country: the nation’s power grids are aging and lack appropriate funding for upkeep, while climate change is increasing both the average temperature and the number of extreme weather events throughout the United States to make wildfire conditions more likely.
And it’s not just the electrical grid. Infrastructure is all connected, says Zimmerman. .
You can bet when system failures begin to cascade, Nancy Pelosi’s winery will do fine, just fine. The disabled, the sick, the old, the working class? Those who can’t buy their way out? Them, not so much. Jackpot….
There’s certainly a post to be made on turning PG&E into a public utility. But I think the real issue is political (a question of mobilization). What I notice is not agenda-less “movements” but the various disturbances now taking place concurrently: Hong Kong, France, Iraq, Ecuador, Haiti, Peru, and probably others I can’t bring to mind. The classical trigger for such disturbance is food prices, as with the Tahrir Square uprising, but if that is the case today, I haven’t seen evidence. Rather, in every case — granted, from what little I can dope out from coverage by our famously free press — these disturbances are political and directed at the State. California seems relatively placid. But then, perhaps the reality of having losing power because the power company thought its stockholders were more important than the people it supposedly serves might give rise to a certain sense of irritation among those affected, especially considering there were so many of them. You have micro-grids to win! (Also, grandma won’t die in her home, your house won’t burn down, and the people who wrote you off and threw you away won’t be able to do that any more).
 Here is an interesting thread on PG&E’s financials:
Now that lots of Californians are calling for a public takeover of PG&E, as the public, let's do what any investor would do before buying a company – review its financial statements. https://t.co/DFLAOTOyoQ Thread 1/
— Alfred Twu (@alfred_twu) October 11, 2019
 With Sanders, I believe and ask “‘I have one life to live, what role do I want to play?” and my answer is to do my little bit to get as many people through the evolutionary chokepoint of the Jackpot as possible (unlike, say, Elon Musk, who would like to rocket off to Mars).
 Agency. Which three letters?
The caption paired with the map of the blackouts in the Bay Area is misleading. The map mainly shows that the sparsely populated hills, and the sparsely populated Pacific Coast south of Pacifica had their power shut off, and the densely populated areas (which are mostly in the lowlands) did not have their power shut off. Tech giants, for obvious reasons, do not locate in the sparsely populated hills. I notice that Los Altos Hills, near Mountain View, which is inhabited almost entirely by wealthy people, had its power shut off, as well as Half Moon Bay, which is not as wealthy as Los Altos Hills but is still much more affluent than, say, West Oakland. No, the map looks like the power outages were based on physical geography (and the Pacific Coast’s dependence on power lines going through the fire-prone hills), not based on the political-economic power of Tech Giants or others.
You feel that political power is in no way related to geography?
Well, not physical geography. Social geography (where the rich live), yes.
My blacked out neighborhood in the Oakland hills is very affluent and packed with tech workers doing grueling commutes to SF and Mountain View. Ditto with Orinda and Moraga over the hills. In much of the bay area the hills are where the wealthy people live! So I would have to agree that the map was a bit misleading, though based on a healthy suspicion!
Political power is related to social geography (which also has a connection to physical geography), but this specific example is bad and misleading. Instead of tech giants, one could point out every neighborhood with a high concentration of low-income black people, notice that none of them had power outages per this map, and then suggest PG&E spared the low-income black people because of their sense of social justice (which would be a preposterous interpretation, but it is true that the neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income black people were generally spared).
The real reason the sparsely populated hills lack political power is that they are sparsely populated, not because the people there are individually less powerful (actually, they are probably more likely to be upper-middle-class thru upper class than people in the densely populated areas).
In Soutehrn California, it is the wealthy places like Malibu that burn, not Watts. That is because the interstates allowed people to spread out into the formerly wilderness areas. US housing policies are similar to the financial system before the 2008 financial crisis. It is largely deregulated and the system is largely set up on the premise that everyday will be a normal day.
The wildfires in California are no different than Sandy hitting NYC/NJ, Harvey flooding Houston, Michael obliterating parts of the Florida Panhandle. People built non-resilient things in locations with periodic events that require great resilience. Climatic change is making these events worse and more frequent, but they were going to show up in one form or the other at some point. California is a fire ecology in the same way that Florida is a hurricane ecology.
Florida dodged a bullet this year when Dorian parked over the Bahamas instead of slamming into West Palm Beach or Miami. Those horrifying images could easily have been the east coast of Florida. BTW – the obvious thing is occurring in the Bahamas where investors are looking for bargain real estate now – what else would you do with a disaster zone? https://www.inquirer.com/real-estate/real-estate-investors-hurricane-dorian-bahamas-20191013.html
So this is fundamental social policy. Do we allow people to simply build in dangerous environments, not require real planning and preventive measures, and then assume federal funding will be available to rebuild in a wash, rinse, repeat cycle? This is the true Third World aspect of what is going on.
Good grief, the hills outlying the dense city areas are where the trees and brush are. That’s the fuel for wild fires not the commercial buildings in Oakland where it would be hard to sustain a fire even in the homeless camps. This is not a big socio-economic puzzle.
I was curious to find out how the outage areas were determined by PG&E.
After reading the comments here, it seems to begin to make sense, though, I think, if it is windy in the areas close to the power sources, and the power lines are not buried underground, then, in those cases, any one downstream (that is, every user, more or less) will be without power.
No, we feel that this chart is performative nonsense.
PG&E is for once acting proactively. And, yeah, it sucked.
> Tech giants, for obvious reasons, do not locate in the sparsely populated hills.
I think you’re confusing a natural process with a historical process. Here is a description of Silicon Valley at the turn of the century. From the Brittanica:
In short form. if railroad baron Leland Stanford had decided to locate his eponymous university in the Oakland Hills because he liked the views and the mountain air, that is where Silicon Valley would be today. The “Silicon Hills” would not be sparsely populated, and if “Silicon Valley” had remained bucolic, it would be taking its lumps along with the non-Tesla portions of Fremont.
I agree the blackouts look targeted by fire risk zones. I live in Rancho Bernardo California, home of the devastating 2007 Witch Creek fire. The fires start and travel through the most natural areas. The fire really struggles when it hit’s suburban areas where the amount of un-watered brush available to burn is seriously diminished.
SDGE bought an infomercial I watched on TV yesterday about all the effort they have gone through to understand, and prevent wild fires. It’s pretty impressive even if they are just talking their book. The effort has been substantial and we haven’t had any blackouts with the Santa Ana’s blowing the last few days.
SDGE has done an impressive job in creating new power transmission technology and rebuilding infrastructure,
SDGE developed concrete & steel reinforced power poles that are stronger, last longer and above all, don’t burn. Seems intuitive, but maybe a reach for those that came up in the Neoliberal era.
SDGE also developed a 3 layer plastic wrap for high voltage (KV) transmission towers where for the first time those lines are insulated.
See their list of projects here:
And btw neither the PG&E reoranization plan nor the competing venture capital reorg plan will address the infrastructire issues IMO.
OTOH, isn’y proper regulation the proper function of (non neoliberal ) goverment/governance?
Kakotopia, new name for California, spawning KakPERS or vice versa.
Excellent Post. All my life California has been the trend setter. It is now the harbinger of America’s future in the era of climate change. The basic fact is modern civilization and big data rely on electricity. Turned off, it dies.
Recent “disturbances are political and directed at the State”. I keep coming back to Mark Blyth. The upheavals are because nation states no longer serve the people. Multinational Corporations and supra-national trade institutions like Boeing, Apple and the European Union (together with the revolving door) assure that government is secondary and is run by and for oligarchs.
Utilities are a public good. If they no longer serve the people, they must either be seized by the government or they must be strictly regulated. If left unaddressed with the blackouts affecting middle class and poor areas only but not the wealthy, this is a sure fire trigger for insurrection.
This crisis is not caused by climate change.. it is caused by neoliberalism. The lack of regulatory accountability and the lack of investment in infrastructure were deliberate choices. This was done for the sake of God money, and will continue to be done because “now it’s too expensive to fix!” ( In other words, austerity thinking).
This problem can be fixed, but it won’t, because of austerity. Just like the water systems decaying in the US, now the power grid will decay. Because of TINA, no one could dare spend the money to fix the problem .
For those of you interested in the details of California’s energy systems there is this:
And for those of you thinking survival there is this: http://www.land2plan.com/?page_id=289
A public utility that does not serve the public has forfeited its privilege to exist as a private entity and both the shareholders AND the bondholders should be wiped out – to encourage a bit more due diligence in how well the utility is run.
And if that would result in suffering for retirees, widows and orphans – well that’s what a generous social safety net is for, isn’t it?
Plus, one or two examples should be enough to encourage the others to behave well.
Considering the one percent own some 80% or more of all the stocks, I’d say some good old fashioned accountability in terms of exposure to loses due to mismanagement is long, long overdue. We could start with Boeing…
It’s been incredibly sickening hearing Gavin Newsom (Presidential striver like so many other horrid Californian politicians, currently and historically ) faux spout about the blackouts. From July:
Governor Newsom, most state lawmakers took money from convicted felon PG&E – PG&E donated millions to California politicians after it was convicted of 6 federal felonies connected to the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed 8 people.
Of course it was a strange question for Gavin, it doesn’t appear that the main California press ask him such questions on a regular basis; too busy blaming Trump forRussiagate™ and supporting a blind impeachment for all the wrong reasons. Which I’m guessing none of the now impoverished citizens are not concerned with that in the least. More than a few of them who bothered voting (I don’t imagine many homeless people vote, for countless valid reasons) in such a criminally rigged system, voted Republican/Trump for the first time, after decades of One Party State betrayal.
Open secrets lists the millions PG&E has donated to Federal Congress Creatures, domestically and across the country. Some name[s] will highly disappoint:
The skim of campaign contributions from bloated publicly regulated entities is at the heart of California politics. It is why “Everything is CalPERS.”
The playbook was written by Republicans Pete Wilson and Jim Brulte during the 1996 “privatization” scam, which seemed to have been designed by the producer of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes — which (I can’t make this stuff up) it actually was. Tomatoes -producer and Republicrat Steve Peace brokered the “Death March” that turned-out a system that forced the utilities to give away their generation infrastructure to Duke Energy, Reliant, and Enron (Peace was once described as having “the emotional maturity of a 4-year old”).
Until that time, California’s investor-owned utilities were vertically integrated, generating most of their own power through facilities subsidized by the monopolies they had been granted. Needless to say, millions of dollars in pay-offs/campaign contributions were involved.
The utilities were left with an aging infrastructure and an obligation to provide power to consumers at heavily controlled prices, but market manipulation drove the price of electricity that they had generated for generations from $42 a MwH to $1400 a MwH, and they all had entered bankruptcy by 2001. The infrastructure companies were tens of billions in debt, and Governor Gray Davis was recalled after blowing through the $23 Billion state budget surplus propping them up without ever attempting to unwind the unconscionable “deregulation” fraud.
So our troubles began. Like CalPERS, this is not a story of ignorance. The pervasive incompetence is feigned. PG&E has been transferring maintenance funds to grossly excessive executive compensation, unwarranted dividends, and massive campaign contributions since emerging from bankruptcy in 2004. Any idiot could have figured-out how to make the grid more resilient. I live next to a grove of trees abutting power lines. PG&E used to trim them annually. They stopped about a decade ago, and only recently brought in some barely-competent contractors to make a hash of the job in response to the federal manslaughter ”conviction” — that in perfect Holder Doctrine theater did not charge a single individual.
This is looting. Shutting-off power to nearly 2 Million people in the fifth largest economy in the world is theater, and nothing less than a threat to shoot the hostages if the looting is not allowed to continue.
Follow the money…
Mini grids require fuel, or sunlight. While CA has abundant summer sunlight, it has much less in winter.
Is there a study sizing, and costing, the solar farm and battery capacity required for the proposed “mini” grid areas?
The batteries need to be able to be charge much faster than the total demand, consequently the solar plant would meed to be some multiple in size of average demand, both in electricity supply and cost, because of cloudy weather patterns in winter in CA.
Yes, this rah-rah for mini grids managed to skip over the significance of their use of diesel. Diesel generators are pretty dirty. I’m not at all sure this nets out as clean, or even cleaner than the status quo.
Plus my understanding is batteries (which lower efficiency, you don’t get out what you put in, there are frictional costs) aren’t very good for time shifting energy across months. I haven’t seen this unpacked, as to whether it is due to how much you’d have to store to allow for several overcast days in the winter (a regular event) on top of low solar power levels in the winter generally, or the self-discharge rate, or both.
I also note the home battery backups are for 12 hours. That is bupkis.
Plenty of free education here:
Basically a discussion board of people who are making it work, with proven designs over the last few decades. Very good discussion about the battery aspect, and homeowner-sized DIY systems.
One thing I found out is that good sized battery storage works because the wind tends to blow when the sun isn’t shining, and vice-versa. The typical weather shift is ~3 days in the USA — a couple of forklift batteries will handle that no prob.
I would like to point out that the city of Munich (Germany) had a pilot program of mini-grids using natural gas, I heard is has served them well. Financially the incentives are similar for homeowners who install PV solar. Basically I’m a fan of the German plan.
How did they got the natural gas to the mini grids? By buried pipeline?
Might as well bury the electrical distribution lines, and skip the rotating machinery costs.
One needs to consider the end-to-end solution, and not piecemeal.
I imagine so. Most homes up here in the northeast already have buried nat gas and electric. The Munich system is micro co-generation — each home has its own generator. If it is making too much, it can share with the neighbors. When your big utility goes out or cannot meet a peak load, that is what the system is for. So yes, it would solve a bunch of problems in Cali.
The Munich system is micro co-generation — each home has its own generator.
That appears both horribly inefficient, and costly. It take large generating equipment to achieve 30% efficiency, small units are somewhere around 15 to 20% efficiency or worse.
This would seem to be a fair assumption but the truth is quite the opposite; co-generation refers to using the natural gas for BOTH hearing the home and for electrical generation, thus gaining far higher efficiencies than large powerplants that end up throwing most of the energy they’re using to make electricity away in the form of waste heat. I’m actually looking into just such a co-generation plant for my home now.
The fire problem in California is in the rural treed areas in the hills and mountains. Much of it is granite and the cost of undergrounding is prohibitive.
mom got a bee in her bonnet around 12 years ago that we needed to get off the grid(meaning, of course, her house…lit up like an airport every night because of the 8 year Prowler Problem(that dude is long dead, now)).
her stated end-goal was keeping the fridges, freezers and water well running…and at least some A/C in the high summer.
this is entirely doable….I’ve studied the matter at length for 20 years, calculating loads and figuring out where to put the batteries and such for maximum efficiency.
but mom…being mom…hired a consultant from 150 miles away…who’s core bidness was solar.
she advocated against wind(cheaper) for some reason(wink)…even though we always have wind, and numerous places free of obstruction to prevailing wind.
the result= a cost many times over what my plan would cost.
aside from sourcing(solar vs wind)….and my main point in this discussion…the main issue is that mom and the consultant took the electricity bill…averaged over a year…and called that the Load.
in other words, mom wants to run the household just like she does with the grid, but without the grid.
this means a much larger generating and storage capacity is required.
but what is a want, as opposed to a need?
my plan contemplates essentials only…fridge, freezer, well…and A/c for days over 102 degrees.(we had 4 of those this summer, 15 last year).
kerosene lamps and lanterns for night time…and do we really need a tv?….or cooling an empty house to 63 degrees?
manage our expectations and the electricity we “need” drops considerably.
Exactly — most of the time I use less than 2kW (heat is separate). However the utility hookup is good for 22 kW (100 amps roughly) and you pay for all of it. There are occasional peaks when I’ll use all of 8 or 10 kW usually when I’m welding. But that is what diesel is for.
Most of the people on the site I linked (off-grid, or partially) have both reduced their usage, and use *both* solar and wind. It’s NOT an either-or situation. *Sigh* I wish people would learn some engineering… even go to the local community college
Kerosene is fossil fuel. Maybe rechargeable headlamps and low demand LED light strings for evening light?
No free lunch… the phydics of energy
I’ll use it while i can…got a 55 gallon blue thing of it, inherited from grandma’s place.
any vegetable or animal oil will do…even bacon grease and goosefat.
finally got the beehive built…attempt to move the bees in next spring…then, maybe candles. all is experimentation, and we’ll see what works.
and LED, etc are fine and all…but consider the supply lines, wrapping around the earth, and the crap generated from the manufaturing process…
no free lunch, indeed.
i did a walk-by-it experiment with sunflowers a couple of months ago. the big eating kind hybridised with the native maximillian kind and made 16 foot plants with 2″ flowers. removing the seedheads(so they wouldn’t come up at that spot next year) my hands got oily….so i grabbed 2 sheets of trash sheetmetal and a rock and pressed a bunch of them….viola! sunflower oil!,lol.
that’s fuel for lamps, sourced right here, on my place.
one does what one can
I feel your pain. The only time I ever got recognised for me being an electrical engineer was when I got a relay wired in a car belonging to my wife’s dad so that the dimmed headlights would be on when the key is in the ‘engine on’ position!
i think it’s a generational thing, rather than a necessarily age-related phenomenon.
I sure don’t remember my grandparents being forceful and unexpert experts(they actually knew how to do things, and admitted when they didn’t)
more of a boomer trait.
(and yes, i loathe generational generalisations as much as anyone,lol. but if the slipper fits…)
i’m universally regarded as the supreme master of chef-dom, organic(etc*) and sustainability(etc*)out here…except by my own folks.
(* need new words that, for instance, encompass “organic sustainable regenerative and extreme recycler/cracker-rigger”.I like “yeoman”,lol, but haven’t had any luck introducing it into the lingo. “Anarch”, perhaps)
I have it myself to some degree, I think it is a ‘adult thing’. I have three long-time grown-up children; I find it is a very strange situation that ‘suddenly’ they have gone from ‘pretty much useless teenager’ to becoming competent at what they are doing and they don’t really need my help or advise all the time.
I am learning (and struggling) to keep my mouth shut and waiting for them to ask. Just the other day wife and I was discussing that we didn’t like the 26-year old picking edible mushrooms on his own, in case he picks some toxic ones. We have ‘foraged’ together for years and he also knows very well what is safe to pick and what is risky because of similarity with toxic specimens .. and yet, we must fret :)
My reference on-line dictionary doesn’t define “bupkis.”
You need a new reference source. It’s old-
one of the indicators of an imploding regime is the inability to preform the most basic services. they sell mini generators for less than $300, you can even attach mini solar panels that will generate power if all else fails. I have been thinking about getting some. In the event of a prolonged power failure, they would be little solidarity machines, you could help out with people who need power for their medical devices, of just help your neighbors recharge their phones and laptops. I imagine that sales of rain water collection devices are going up.
one of the indications of a pre-revolutionary society is the growth of parallel structures. These structures first come into being because the imploding regime cannot be depended on to provide basic services, and then as some point, the parallel structures simply become the new regime.
hyper-individualistic parallel structures, just what we need. NOT.
I get you are helping out neighbors and you are no doubt a good neighbor, but I’m saying what this type of solution is structurally.
In Sweden, after a good winter storm, the power can be down for weeks ‘out in the forest’. The authorities recommend that homes keep basic supplies for several weeks.
I have my camping equipment, a storm kitchen which uses alkylated petrol as fuel (which is also used for the lawnmower, keeping it fresh) and rice, beans, pasta, dried mushrooms, dried tomatoes and such. I have some foldable solar cells and chargers for batteries. I use the equipment when hiking so it is maintained and working.
Be aware that a very cheap generator may not last enough hours to run continuously for 1-2 weeks.
Have long theorized that whereas in the 20th century, homes were connected to grids for telephones, water, electricity, sewerage, etc. that as the 21st century went along, that there would have to be a trend where more and more homes would have to be more self-standing if for no other reason than for resiliency. Those mini-grids are an aspect that I had not thought of and having localized grids does sound interesting. So long as you did not have monster corporations going around, backed up by private equity companies, buying them up that is. Then you would have to move to a system where houses were independently supplied as much as possible to get away from that death by monetization of local assets by Wall Street.
There is not the land for rural living, for the environment you envision. One has to factor in the increased density required to enable the billions to live on this planet.
I personally believe there will be a great die off. It happens with all species which outgrow their range.
Look at a picture of NY City, or London, or Rome and explain self sufficiency of any degree.
There is not the land for rural living, for the environment you envision. Synoia
Sure of that? I’ve flown enough miles with the window seat to seriously doubt that there is not enough land, at least in the US, for a vast increase in the rural population.
As farmers it’s been tried. That was when the US was at 100 million, 19th century population, and it was only possible with a industrial (city) heart.
As hunter gatherers, which could work the population density has to be very low to eliminate competition for locally scare resources to be available to the hunter gatherers.
You appear never to have bought rural land.
First, if you are going to go all Little Home on the Prairie, you need land with decent topsoil, few or no rocks, and a decent growing season. The fact that land hasn’t been exploited is likely a strong indicator that it isn’t productive in agricultural terms.
Second, you need to be able to drill a well. Lotta places there is no water or the water is too brackish or has too many nasty minerals in it, like arsenic.
Now of course you can always raise goats and chickens but you need to be able to trade with people who have grains and veggies. Pray tell, how do you do that, particularly if all your new ‘hood is good for is goats and chickens?
I’m working on that problem, Ms Meliorator! Efficient hybrid indoor gardening, with plant waste feeding chickens. Aquaculture for plants and fish. Grains, frankly, are space and water intensive and bad for you.
Not to mention that a Citizen’s Dividend to replace (and then some?) all fiat creation beyond that created by deficit spending for the general welfare and who knows what JUSTICE wrt fiat creation might allow?
Look on the bright side. Procurers of ‘nightsoil’ will become popular again … once sewage collection systems break down, or are shut down due to shunting the water that was formerly used for flushing, to other more critical considerations .. like growing food !! Compost toilets might become all the rage too, do to necessity !
It’s not just electrical distribution systems that are in danger.
Sadly, no. Nightsoil is so full of pesticides, herbicides, prescription drugs and heavy metals that it’s actually considered too hazardous to use as fertilizer. Humans are the ultimate bioconcentrator.
s o digest it…harvest the methane*, and use the left over, sterilized, former poop for gardening(hafta add the micro flora and fauna.)
the methane from YOUR poop will end up in the atmosphere anyway…better to burn it(as opposed to fossil methane) and emit co2, instead…co2 is less potent GHG.
it doesn’t have to be high tech
from 1975: https://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/home-methane-digester-zmaz75zwar
@Synoia. Sorry for a late reply. Wasn’t talking about going back to rural farms as that economy does not exist anymore. More like house-block size which is still problematical as heaps of people live in apartment and the like. You can purify water on site as well as generate your own electricity but all this depends on the regions that people live in and what the climate there is like. Different regions will require different solutions so it is not going to be easy by a long stretch.
The linked LAT article is really a must read.
Micro-grid sure smells to me like tech’s answer to monetizing the PG&E problem. Let’s review the narrative:
– Start with trailers packed with LION batteries in the desert, bleeding edge future stuff!
– Casually mention diesel generators being part of an overall solution
– Establish power blackouts as a new fact of life for Californians
– “With those concerns in mind, some energy companies are urging state officials to incentivize microgrids and smaller standalone energy systems” cha-ching
– Acknowledge that the “new” technology is not ready for prime time. Introduce “experts” from Navigant Research (actually Consulting, but hey it’s only a word) that have traveled forward in time to let us know the market will grow 500% over the next 7 years. BTW, these time travelers were recently acquired by, wait for it, private equity firm Veritas Capital.
– Introduce Stanford Uni “expert” appointed by Gov Newsome who thinks this technology “would make it easier for utilities to prevent fires by allowing them to shut down power lines without totally cutting off electricity to critical infrastructure.” Define “critical”. Clue: It ain’t your house. (And um, maybe the Gov ought to tell his appointee he’s not too happy with PG&E turning off power.)
– Remind folks that 85 people are dead because PG&E wasn’t allowed to cutoff power then. I mean obviously they had the foresight to have done it but they just were not permitted. Did we forget to mention power blackouts are a new way of life here in California?
– But! Not to worry: Installing a microgrid is “not super cheap, but it’s feasible and can be done quickly,” Wara said. “If the benefits are avoiding burning down a community in Northern California, that’s a pretty darn big benefit.” BTW, did we mention rolling blackouts are a new way of life here in California?
– Now that we’ve established this is our only viable alternative to not fixing the problem, let’s remind folks about the massive Federal and State funding required for the bleeding edge technology. It did actually work once for four hours. Test 2 didn’t go so well though. It was a bit too “ambitious”.
– Oh yeah , um, cough, cough /whisper The diesel generators are the workhorses of the microgrid.
– But, once again, no worries! Elon Musk has acquired a company for $218 million that can fix this problem. Whew!
– I’m sure this is all really confusing and yeah it doesn’t really work, and renewables are really a small part of it, and it’s really expensive and the taxpayers will have to pay for it but “we haven’t seen any showstoppers”
– Finally, let’s close reminding everyone we are at war here. “Clear and present danger” is more than just a good Clancy novel. Politicians want this, NOW, strategy be damned:
When you’re taking mortar fire, that’s not the right time to have a strategic conversation about how to prevent mortar fire in the future. You’ve got to do something now, because this is a clear and present danger. Did we mention rolling blackouts are a new way of life here in California?
– So now of course we hit you with the bill:
“Customers are going to be facing really significant rate increases,” Hoskins said. “It’s really a question of what’s the best approach, and to try to take a little bit of a longer view.” Oh, have we mentioned that these rolling blackouts that are a new way of life here in California are going to cost you more money too?
Sounds like the plan is coming together nicely! Moar QE pleeze!
Ha, the Snark is strong in this one! Disaster Capitalists gonna Capitalize.
Saint Greta told us all to panic, quick give King Elon all your money! Oh wait, you don’t have any….
California is THE example of why privatization is not a solution when it comes to government services.
Water. That stuff is essential to life, and we have squandered the kind we drink while drowning in the kind we cannot drink. In time, water will become the most critical utility in the USA. The recent season of Amazon Prime’s Goliath makes it quite clear that the needs of agriculture at some point conflict with the need to access a glass of potable water. It is difficult to avoid speculation that many parts of the country will wind up dependent on desalination or some other water purification technology to meet the demand for pure water. It is hard to imagine water management without a centrally-controlled government-run utility.
Nobody mentions the biggest reason for why wildfires have destroyed so many homes.
And it is not PG&E or any other utility, it is that you have hundreds of towns all over the state consisting of nothing but single-family houses entirely built out of wood, located on the slopes of mountains and hills, and with tall trees growing densely in between them.
There is only one possible outcome for a place like this, and it is to burn down to the ground. Which will happen with 100% certainty on a time scale of a few decades, even if we went back to the 19th century and lived without electricity. Transmission line sparks are hardly the only cause of wildfires.
A city in the lowlands in which most people live in apartment blocks will not burn down because it is much less flammable and because there are generally huge fire breaks surrounding it.
So the bigger question here is why is it that all those towns were allowed to be built and to grow to their current sizes?
“it is that you have hundreds of towns all over the state consisting of nothing but single-family houses entirely built out of wood, located on the slopes of mountains and hills, and with tall trees growing densely in between them.
There is only one possible outcome for a place like this, and it is to burn down to the ground”
I imagine that’s why it’s illegal to build a wooden house here. Wood gets used, but the outside is something that will not burn.
The vegetation in California is arid zone vegetation which is unusually flammable, according to a friend with a degree in forestry.
Perhaps building codes need to be revised?
Many arid region plants either use oils to coat their surfaces to reduce water loss or they simply go dormant and let their above ground aspects go dry (grasses). Cacti and other succulents are an exception that have developed to hold tremendous amounts of water.
So a Santa Ana wind blowing at 70 mph and 90 degrees with 5% humidity across oily and dried vegetation is just a blowtorch waiting to happen. Many of the areas that people have settled in are like this. Ironically, some of the safest areas are where the farmers have simply eliminated all native vegetation and planted irrigated crops. Its the homeowners wanting to enjoy nature that are at the biggest risk of nature consuming their home.
and isn’t eucalyptus imported, long ago, for some reason(akin to nutria or kudzu)?
we have beebrush(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aloysia_wrightii ) for flammable landscaping around here…but at least it’s native.
(throw a branch of that on a small campfire and jump way back,lol. the tiny dried twigs make excellent firestarters when it’s wet, though…but care is needed when using it indoors)
And here is the law of unintended consequences at work-
” How PG&E’s power shutdown threatened a NASA mission ”
As a past resident of Borregp Springs, CA who lived through the creation of the microgrid you describe, I can tell you it is no panacaea for addressing distribution system uptime. Part of the solution, yes, perhaps. The sole reason Borrego Spribgs has such a microgrid is its abundant solar generating capacity, enough to power the entire load of a desrt summer afternoon. Very few other localities have the renewable generating capacity to make such a microgrid feasible.
As to P.G.&E. and S.D.G.&E., fire threats due to deferred maintenance and poor management are not acceptably mitigable by simply turning off the power. This is a preposterously arrogant response to being held accountable to the responsibilities concomitant to being granted a utility monopoly. The fact that these companies have forgotten the terms of the monopoly charters they have benefitted from for nearly a century is not exculpatory. They deserve to be condemned and taken over by the state, and there are many precedents for doing just that, and soon. No mercy, no quarter, seize the assets and move on.
“The sole reason Borrego Spribgs has such a microgrid is its abundant solar generating capacity, enough to power the entire load of a desrt summer afternoon. Very few other localities have the renewable generating capacity to make such a microgrid feasible. ”
Here our highest load is at night in the winter, when it is dark about 16 hours a day. There are no one size fits all solutions.
And the winter is cold enough that heat pumps used for heating fail far more often than in more southerly climes due to the strain.
Quite right! No more bailouts for the shareholders; they got fat off the profits when times were good, they can get skinned when the underlying fraud is exposed- it’s the best incentive for making sure it doesn’t happen again or elsewhere.
Accountability would fix an awful lot of America’s problems right now…
California native here, and I’ve lived here most of my life on the Central Coast.
When I was young, and then up through, I think, the late 80s, I remember PG&E crews trimming trees and shrubs on a regular basis to keep them clear of their power lines. They don’t do that any more: for instance, it’s been *dry as a bone* here in Los Osos, and the tinder is ready to go at any time, with the power lines
running right though six-plus feet of it, all around.. it’ll be a near-miracle
if this region doesn’t see a major fire this year.
Some have said versions of “it’s hard..”; that is no excuse for not doing even
the *basic maintenance work* that PG&E once did as a matter of course.
So I have been watching the doco “Enron: The smartest guys in the room” when it got to the part with what they did to California about 20 years ago when they kept on cutting the power. So I wondered – is it possible that a lot of PG&E executives got their start in Enron back then?
I’m listening to the American Scandal podcast (season 10) about Enron and thought the same thing. In one episode, they profile a fine gentleman named Timothy Belden who worked as a trader and masterminded the driving up of California electricity prices which resulted in massive windfalls of $$$ for Enron (and himself). When he was caught, he then turned around and ratted out his superiors and didn’t get any prison time. Now he runs his own consultant shop “Energy GPS LLC” and even has a LinkedIn page! LOL-I’m not sure why I was surprised that he has everything out in the open, but the fact that guys like this can just walk around in public without any fear/consequences has got to be one of the core symptoms of American decline.
One big PG&E problem is its centralization.
Break it up into regional distribution companies, each regional operator having a common interest in transmission lines linking the regionals and the lines to the generating facilities.
Regionals might (or might not…good case either way) own the generating facilities.
Set up the regionals as co-ops, owned by their customers (not external shareholders). All company revenue goes toward buying and distributing power and maintaining infrastructure.
This model is already very successful in other parts of the country.
It puts control into the right hands. The parts could be made quite small (a few counties each). PG&E is now or about to be in receivership. Who else wants the parts (their decrepit state and attendant legal risk suggests that no one else wants them).
So, if the consumer is going to have to pay to fix (bail out the thieves), then the consumer owns the asset once the heavy lifting is done.
Contra-example to the bank bailouts.
Much of the structure is in place to take over and operate PG&E’s assets. 25% of California’s electricity is delivered by municipal utilities & irrigation districts. Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs) are public entities that are mandated to provide renewable power as cheap, or cheaper, than PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E.
Currently, they provide about 50% of the power but don’t own or manage the distribution/transmission lines. They would be ideal entities to run broken up PG&E assets.
The public Transmission Agency of Northern California (TANC) would be an ideal starting point to take over and upgrade PG&E’s transmission lines.
“I believe and ask “‘I have one life to live, what role do I want to play?” and my answer is to do my little bit to get as many people through the evolutionary chokepoint of the Jackpot as possible (unlike, say, Elon Musk, who would like to rocket off to Mars).”
It is very nice to see this summarized so succinctly.
Doesn’t seem a common perspective, all very catcher in the rye. A much more common perspective is just survivalists versions of “I’ve got mine” it seems.
Me: I do what good I can, I try to do politically what I can, but my purpose might mostly be to enjoy my life (in the least ecologically destructive way possible) not expecting to be special or exempt from the common human fate (which for mortals is death, and for humanity in the Anthropocene might possibly be death *FROM* climate change) in any way at all.
That is very well put and I think about where I am. Sometimes I think of myself as crewing an oar on a ship with 8 billion people rowing, and just trying desperately to make the inevitable collision with an iceberg a grazing shot rather than a direct hit.
I think one place where the GND or eco-modernist people fail is considering what happens if (when) they fail, and if their partially completed plans will end up making the Jackpot worse.
The ship will be much easier to maneuver if most of the passengers are tossed overboard.
PG&E’s chaotic handling of its power shutdowns creates opportunity for those who might work the chaos to make more chaos: “A Group Of Snipers Shot Up A Silicon Valley Power Station For 19 Minutes Last Year Before Slipping Into The Night” [https://www.businessinsider.com/silicon-valley-power-station-sniper-attack-2014-2].