Northern California city braces for another multi-day blackout, Nevada City mayor calls on Governor Newsom to declare a state of emergency, microgrids

by Brian Bahouth

Downtown Nevada City, California - image is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reinette Senum is mayor of Nevada City, California. A person noted for her determination. In 1994 she became the first woman to cross Alaska in winter on foot, unaccompanied. On skis, Senum pulled a 150 pound sled some 600 miles down the frozen Yukon River. After the river broke up, she completed her roughly 1,500 mile trek in a canoe she made in an Athabascan native village, but today as mayor her legendary determination cannot calm the wind and forestall the resulting Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Public Safety Power Shutoffs.

“You can’t even make plans because you don’t know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to come back on,” she said with exasperation. “You’re in this constant state of anxiety and not able to communicate.”

Topographically, Nevada City, California has a lot in common with what remains of the town of Paradise roughly 50 miles to the north. Both are near the western edge of adjacent national forests. Both are surrounded by a sea of big, coniferous trees. Nevada City is roughly 2,500 feet above California’s Central Valley floor; Paradise, 1,778 feet. Before the Camp Fire, Paradise was a much larger town with just over 26,000 residents compared to Nevada City’s roughly 3,000 year around citizens, but taken together, Nevada City and its adjacent sister city of Grass Valley make up a community of over 20,000. Even before the nation’s most destructive wildfire in history wiped out the town of Paradise, residents and emergency officials in the Nevada City and Grass Valley area were and continue to be fixated on wildfire awareness.

The Camp Fire started on November 8 of last year and killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings. In May of this year Calfire investigators determined a Pacific Gas and Electric power line was the cause. The utility’s ultimate liability has yet to be determined until fire victims are fairly compensated and bondholders feed on the utility’s carcass in bankruptcy court.

According to the PG&E website, the utility will turn off power to large parts of their grid in northern California during high wind periods to prevent another fire. With high winds and low humidity expected across much of the mountainous portions of northern California this weekend and into next week, residents in the Nevada City/Grass Valley area have been warned to expect another blackout that will last as long as the unfavorable weather conditions persist, several days if not longer.

See the latest power availability map from PG&E here.

Mayor Senum said the town has yet to recover from the last blackout that occurred in late September.

“It’s creating a cascading effect. It literally is crippling our local economy. We’re not even talking just for businesses, but it’s also the employees. It’s the sales tax revenue for the city. We’re talking everything from medical businesses to the dentist to the vet to the theater to the performers. It’s huge. It literally stopped us in our tracks, and even when the power goes back on it takes days to recover.”

Autumn is an important season for tourist visits in Nevada City, a town noted for excellent, locally sourced restaurants and many unusual boutiques. The Italianate Style Victorian homes that make up downtown Nevada City are a reflection of a bygone hydraulic gold mining boom in the 1850s. There are sidewalks and giant deciduous trees that offer up a fall spectacle. There is no larger single community event than Halloween. Senum said three related businesses could well fold after the next blackout.

California Organics is a local organic grocery store, restaurant and deli. They don’t know until about 30 days out from the first blackout whether or not they’re even going to be able to survive because that’s when the bills come due. The first blackouts, because they were so unprepared, because it was so big and so unprecedented, they lost $50,000, $60,000 and that was the first blackout.”

The Briar Patch Community Food Co-op in Grass Valley was hit hard by the first blackout and is trying to prepare for the next, but according to officials at the co-op, the lead time is just too short to install a sustainable new source of electric power.

Senum does not characterize the local economy as thriving but says local businesses have been “making do” in recent years, yet even the most healthy businesses may not endure the multi-day blackout planned for this weekend. “Most of these businesses, particularly restaurants and supermarkets that have thousands of thousands of dollars in perishables cannot handle this kind of a whiplash,” Senum said.

The mayor and many in the Nevada City area are angry over the blackouts and the ostensible explanation PG&E is offering. Senum places responsibility for the crippling blackouts at the feet of state lawmakers and PG&E officials. Senum said the nation’s largest utility is passing the cost of risk aversion onto citizens and businesses. The costs to her community are profound and untold.

“What has happened is that PG&E and their mismanagement and their greed, and we’re also talking about CPUC (California Public Utilities Commission) and legislators, and even our Governor Newsom, they’re all responsible,” Senum said. “This is basically how PG&E has decided to react to their bankruptcy and the legislators kind of coming down on them, to ensure that they never have another fire with these broad sweeping blackouts and shoulder all the responsibility and all of the expense and all the risk and all damage on to communities like ours.”

Nevada City is a small, tightly knit community. Senum said the city government reconciled their budget a few months ago and had a $1,286 surplus. With a pair of blackouts behind them and another looming this weekend, the mayor said city officials are preparing for a nose dive in sales tax revenue.

Senum guffawed at the notion the power outages keep her community safer or that PG&E was cutting the power to protect people.

“There’s nothing safe about this. This is not for our safety. This is for PG&E’s bottom line. They don’t want to be responsible for fires, so they just do a blanket blackout across the board, the state of California, one of the largest economies in the world. It feels like living in Africa when I was there. There’s nothing safe about the thousands and thousands of electrical cords and generators and now, containers full of explosive fuel that are littered throughout the fire prone areas. (There are) people who’ve lost their cell service who, if their home catches on fire, can’t call 911 for help.”

A community meeting is in the planning stages. Senum said she’s intent to ask Governor Newsom to declare a State of Emergency. Such a declaration, according to Senum, would enable affected businesses to apply for zero interest loans to help weather the blackouts.

“So they can get their foot out of the grave, and if need be, possibly buy solar power panels or a generator or set up a micro grid.”

For Senum, PG&E continues to betray the public trust and is too big to serve the needs of Nevada City residents with safe and reliable power. Mayor Senum said locally controlled energy cooperatives that maintain small “micro grids” are the solution to the problem.

“Next thing is that we want the cities and the county to actually allow for our communities, especially the business district, to put together a micro grid, so that they can stay in power when these kind of things happen.

“This is stuff we need to do, but the truth of the matter is, we’re getting hammered day in and day out right now, so a lot of this stuff will be months out, if not a few years out as far as the answer. In the meantime we could at least have PG&E keep our business districts open. Nevada City’s power cables are underground. Our lines are underground.”

According to PG&E documents, more than 1,800 customers in the Nevada City/Grass Valley area are “medical baseline customers.” PG&E makes no special provision for medically needy customers, according to their website.

The Nevada City area has connections to the back to the land movement of the 1970s. Poet Gary Snyder still lives in the woods outside Nevada City. The area gets roughly 40 inches of rain a year and generally moderate temperatures around the calendar, a place where an occasional palm tree is mixed among the pines. Boutique agriculture thrives in Nevada County, but Senum said she’s heard from many rural residents about the toll of blackouts.

“We have people out on ranches and in residential areas who don’t have water because they have wells. They’re all on wells and they have animals. They have livestock. Not only do they not have power, they don’t have water.”

Even before the Camp Fire and resulting blackouts, there have been calls to break up PG&E into smaller regional utilities. Senum agrees with the notion of local power grids because she and the city have attempted to communicate with all primary decision makers to include PG&E, the governor, the CPUC, state lawmakers, and federal representatives to no avail.

“I just definitely think that our legislators are treating them (PG&E) like they’re too big to fail, and obviously, they’re too big to be responsible. When you get this big, you get too big for your britches, and that’s exactly what’s happened. PG&E is absolutely out of control.

“PG&E was signed into existence in Nevada City. I’ve been saying PG&E was born in Nevada City and it should die in Nevada City because this is going to kill us otherwise.”

Is there an upside to the blackouts? The pain, anxiety and cost to individuals and businesses of unceremoniously shutting off power to tens of thousands of customers at a time could inspire rapid development of renewable sources of power, but building energy infrastructure takes time and money. When asked about silver linings to the blackouts, Senum said the loss of power has helped close the partisan political gap.

“This is a nonpartisan issue. People don’t really care what your party affiliation is right at this moment. We are all in the same boat. Everybody’s being affected whether you’re an employee of a business or you’re a business owner or you’re just a resident without their well water and you can’t tend your ranch animals. We’re all in the same boat. So the truth of the matter is that if we’re really smart about this, we need to use this force pushing against us and use it to propel ourselves forward into a more decentralized, independent, locally controlled type of power grid. I think for the first time ever, the community is getting a massive wakeup call how that need is right now, that call is for right now.”

The National Weather Service predicts high winds and low humidity across giant swathes of northern California today and for the next few days. According to PG&E, Nevada County will be largely in the dark beginning sometime Saturday October 26. The communities of Cedar Ridge, Chicago Park, Emigrant Park, North San Juan, Penn Valley, Rough and Ready, Smartsville, Washington, Grass Valley, and Nevada City will likely be affected.