Earlier this year, Pacific Gas & Electric was forced into bankruptcy protection by lawsuits seeking billions of dollars of damages for starting a major forest fire with a fallen power line. Then last week, during a period of exceptionally dry and windy conditions, PG&E made the bold decision to cut power to large areas of Northern California to reduce the possibility of… a fallen power line starting a forest fire. And people were outraged.

I read the news coverage in Sunday’s paper with open delight. It’s clear that not every aspect of the intentional blackouts went according to PG&E’s plan, but it’s unfair to expect that–the grid is simply not designed with that kind of control in mind.

The whole situation is a perfect rejoinder from the utility to its customers. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you can’t tolerate a world without electricity1 now and then, you have to be willing to pay for something better.

Underinvestment in infrastructure is a relatively new phenomenon. We, as a society, were once appropriately impressed by the ability to safely generate and transmit massive amounts of power long distances, or to provide a never-ending supply of clean and safe drinking water at improbably low costs. We celebrated these achievements through public events and the press. We built monuments to them.

Today, the work utilities do is invisible and underappreciated. Maintenance is routinely deferred. New projects are hidden from sight, relegated to underground boxes or industrial buildings.

Is indifference an inevitable cost of progress?

  1. I don’t appreciate how the Times story plays the victim card with the lines like “nursing homes and other critical services scrambled to find backup power.” In my state of Massachusetts, nursing homes are legally required to have on-site backup power. Why wouldn’t they? ↩︎