If you were one of an estimated two million customers of Pacific Gas & Electric in northern California last week, your power went off for a day or more. There was no malfunction of the power grid. Instead, the utility deliberately shut off power in large regions where high winds were predicted, in order to avoid sparking forest wildfires of the kind that have killed over a hundred people in recent years.

During the outage, the utility's website crashed, making it difficult or impossible for people to find out if they lived in an area targeted for an outage. According to an article about the blackouts in the Wall Street Journal, California Governor Gavin Newsome reacted with “outrage,” blaming the precautionary outages on PG&E's “greed and mismanagement over the course of decades.” PG&E CEO Bill Johnson said he might have some disagreements with Governor Newsome, but that he was not ruling out similar outages in the future.

Reliable electric power is one of the mainstays of modern civilization. Because most utilities outside large cities rely on above-ground transmission and distribution lines, their power grids are subject to what the lawyers call acts of God: windstorms and ice storms that down power lines, lightning and floods that damage and destroy equipment, and other natural occurrences that disrupt the smooth delivery of power.

As long as these interruptions are rare and end promptly, no one blames the utility for them. But the deliberate large-scale blackouts PG&E imposed simply as a precautionary measure are something new.

The Journal article points out that California now has a law making utilities liable for any damage caused by fires that are ignited by their lines, even if the utility was not negligent. This law contributed to over $30 billion in potential liability costs associated with power-line-sparked wildfires and was a big reason why PG&E went into bankruptcy proceedings at the beginning of this year. I don't know the history of that particular law, but it's consistent with a blame-the-powerful attitude that also seemed to inspire Governor Newsome's comments.

Blaming the powerful is one thing, especially if they're guilty, but crippling a vital utility through excessively punitive laws is another thing.

The parties to this conflict include PG&E's management, workers, and investors, who mainly just want to do their job and/or get paid for it; PG&E's customers, who want reliable electric power without having their houses burn down; and the rest of California, which includes its government, along with the accompanying laws and regulatory environment.

Each group has interests that potentially conflict with the others and these blackouts highlight the areas of conflict.

I lived in California for the four years of my undergraduate degree outside of Los Angeles in the 1970s. I vividly recall waking up one day to see a dark cloud of smoke covering the entire northern half of the sky as a wildfire burned out of control in the San Gabriel Mountains. Even back then, I thought people built houses in crazy places in California, on the edges of cliffs and so on, and it's only gotten worse since then. Fires that used to damage nothing but wildlife (which is bad enough) now threaten whole communities, and so the need to control them by whatever means necessary has grown in recent years.

Part of that control is making sure that no tree can come anywhere close to a high-voltage transmission line. PG&E has a tree-trimming program, but they admit they are behind in their scheduled trimming operations, and they also lack the ability to monitor winds at many specific locations so as to restrict the power outages to where they are really needed. And even if they had such monitoring abilities, their older equipment doesn't allow them to be very selective in the power lines they de-energize—hence the massive blackouts covering a wide area.

From here, the outages look like a desperate move by a utility company that is hamstrung by regulations and unfavorable laws. If PG&E was a human being and not a large corporation, it would strike me as unfair to make him liable for damage even if negligence could not be proved. If a driver is in a situation where he is obeying all the traffic laws, and a child suddenly runs out from a hidden place and gets hit, the driver generally does not get penalized if there was nothing he could have done to avoid the accident.

But if you believe that large private corporations are infinite money pots from which lawyers and their clients can extract indefinite amounts of money, sooner or later you run up against reality. If PG&E doesn't have enough money or staff or freedom from regulations to cut away all their trees from their lines, and they risk the corporate equivalent of death if their lines cause a fire, then the precautionary blackouts look like the least bad alternative.

Civilization is a huge mesh of cooperation: buyers cooperating with sellers, consumers cooperating with producers, and government, one hopes, encouraging the virtuous kind of cooperation that leads to prosperous and flourishing societies. But when groups begin to view other groups mainly as enemies and attribute malign motives to them, you can end up with a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The maligned group or entity may think, “Well, these folks believe I'm a bad hombre no matter what I do, so I might as well act like it.”

The precautionary wind blackouts are a sign that maybe PG&E has been pushed too far. We can hope that a spirit of conciliation can prevail so that more trees can be trimmed, more customers served more reliably, and fewer fires lead to tragedy in the future. But right now, the prospects for that don't look too bright. Especially if your power's out.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...