When Silicon Valley Goes Dark This Time, There Will Be No Refuge

(Bloomberg) - Power outages that hit millions of Californians in 2019 could be doubly catastrophic this year, as technology giants Google, Twitter Inc., and Facebook Inc., among the many companies that keep their offices closed by fall or later, in response to the global Covid 19 pandemic.
If utilities cut power again, the home offices set up during the pandemic may go dark and stay dark for days, and they have no corporate offices to escape to to get electricity. In October 2019, more than 3 million people experienced a series of power outages for more than a week when PG & E Corp. and Edison International tried to prevent live cables from causing forest fires.
Let's call it a collision of crises. Power cuts could limit California's efforts to revive an economy that was largely paralyzed this spring by home stay orders. The state, utilities and individual companies are looking for ways to deal with power outages before a forest fire season is forecast to be worse than normal. For one thing, according to spokesman Adam Bauer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. “thought long about this type of scenario”.
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The San Jose-based technology company builds on geographic redundancies, he said, "with the ability to shift work between distributed teams to maintain service for our customers and partners."
Neither Google, Twitter nor Facebook would comment on their plans. However, government utilities and government officials have said they are working to minimize the threat.
California's regulators passed new shutdown rules last month that require companies to restore electricity within 24 hours of the weather, although the state's windstorms can last for several days. PG & E, the state's largest utility company, has set itself the goal of driving the wind for 12 hours a day, and has almost doubled the number of helicopters it uses to search for unusual lines.
Problematic characters
Nevertheless, there are disturbing signs for this year's forest fire season. A year ago, the state was drought-free. As of June 2, the U.S. drought monitor estimates that nearly 50% of California is currently affected by drought, with the driest areas in the northern part of the state.
The result: According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, "an above-average significant large fire potential". This year, more than 6,600 hectares were burned in the state. Small flames appear almost every day
At the same time, the coronavirus in California killed more than 4,900 people, forcing companies to allow employees to work at home, close schools, and limit travel.
"The reality is that Mother Nature hasn't changed her mind about forest fires due to Covid," said Don Daigler, director of business resiliency at Edison's Edison utility in Southern California. "We are still exposed to the same fire risk as the communities we did last year."
Protected on the spot
"We will protect people on the spot and without electricity," said Carl Guardino, chairman of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's lobby organization, which represents many of the region's largest companies.
Guardino's own house lost electricity for 5 days last year, he said. In the end, he moved to a hotel with his family. he said. Now, however, even this solution is unlikely to shut down.
Of course, many Californians have already turned to backup generators. Generac Holdings Inc. saw sales grow 300%, chief executive officer Bloomberg said a month after the power outages. This spring, Silicon Valley Leadership Group successfully campaigned for government officials to keep solar installers working months before many other companies opened.
However, solar panels with a battery to store power can cost $ 30,000 to buy and install the hardware for a robust home system. So it's not for everyone.
Utility view
Utilities, whose use of deliberate blackouts in the past year have been the subject of intense criticism, are aware of the problem. However, they don't want the number of people working from home to affect their decision to turn off the power when the weather conditions require it.
These conditions - strong wind, hot temperatures, low humidity and dry vegetation - should still be the determining factors, according to the utility companies.
"The approach we take is different, but the calculation has not really changed," said Edisons Daigler. Instead, they are trying to reduce the need for barriers and ensure that when they occur they are smaller and shorter than last year.
"We want to reduce the impact of public safety blackouts, whether they work from home or not," said Matt Pender, director of the Community Wildfire Safety program at PG&E.
Forced bankruptcy
PG&E, which went bankrupt last year after its equipment caused a fatal fire, installs switches and other devices to isolate power outages and makes them more targeted than last year's mass outages. The company has also secured mobile diesel generators that can be installed on up to 48 substations.
Both PG&E and Edison are hardening their field equipment, laying some lines underground and installing stronger poles. For example, Edison installs 600-mile power lines with a coating that prevents sparks when they are touched by tree branches.
PG&E estimates that these steps should reduce the number of customers affected by each potential power outage by a third.
Pop-up centers
Both companies also plan to open more pop-up community resource centers during a power outage to allow greater social distance between people who come to cool off and charge phones and other devices.
They send vans equipped with charging stations to darkened neighborhoods to help customers who don't go to the center, possibly a large number of people at the same time, when meeting strangers involves risks.
In April, several district governments, along with the city of San Jose, asked state regulators to impose new rules on the shutdown program. However, the commission said that the final decision should remain with the utilities.
"Based on these rules and standards, it is appropriate that utilities have the final say on shutting off power and that the CPUC will hold them accountable," spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said.
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