The Way We Live Now Open Thread: “Infrastructure Weak”

Quote in the title from the Hoarse Whisperer tweet that linked this article. From the LATimes, “Unprecedented power shutdown coming as winds bring critical fire danger”:

PG&E said the power cutoffs will begin just after midnight Wednesday.

The blackouts will impact 34 counties in central and northern California, including the Bay Area. It would be the biggest power shutdown so far as utilities across California attempt to reduce wildfire risk due to heavy wind. Utilities malfunctions have been tied to some of the state’s most destructive fires, including last year’s Camp fire, which devastated Paradise, Calif., and the 2017 wine country blazes.

“It is very possible that customers may be affected by a power shutoff even though they are not experiencing extreme weather conditions in their specific location,” the utility said in a statement. “This is because the electric system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions.”

Southern California Edison announced it too was considering preventive power outages. The utility said, in advance of possibly strong Santa Ana winds, power could be cut off to more than 106,000 customers in parts of eight Southern California counties.

Edison’s possible outage would primarily affect utility customers in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Also under consideration are areas in Ventura County and portions of Kern, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties…

Thoughts & prayers to those in the affected areas, and Murphy only knows I wish that were more useful.






48 replies
  1. 1
    NotMax says:

    There had better be a system in place to contact in advance those (and confirm contact, not just leave a message) who rely on powered medical equipment.

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  2. 2
    laura says:

    @NotMax: there isn’t. Friends in Santa Rosa have reported that the gas stations are jam packed, in Lake County, that those at risk should go to a motel or hotel. The Governor is pissed at PG&E but not planning to declare an emergency.
    How many households will lose everything in their refrigerators and freezers, not to mention medications that must remain cold?

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  3. 3
    Belafon says:

    Gonna move this up to make sure it gets the later eyeballs:

    I haven’t posted here as often as I used to, but I know all of you still love pets. The daughter of a friend of ours adopted a dog that was hit by a car. The dog suffered a broken leg, and will need surgery to fix it, and she needs help:

    Zena is a 11-month-old Great Pyrenees dog that was a stray until we met. She was hit by a car on the way to work one afternoon and now has a broken right front leg. This leg requires surgery in order to fix properly. The money raised here will help me pay for her surgery to have her leg fixed. She is a sweet, loving dog who loves cuddles and lots of treats. She means so much to me; she is becoming my emotional support dog to help me with everything going on in my life. I have my own struggles that I have to face along with her that make it hard for me to pay this amount of money. I am a full-time college student working part time, I had ovarian cancer that was removed in January. Zena came into my life for a reason and I feel that we are meant to be each other’s person and dog. She helps me by loving me and protecting me, and I help her by loving her and showing her how her life should be. She should be able to play with as many toys as she wants cuddle and be spoiled. Her favorite thing to do is lay in the bed and cuddle, she loves to be petted and if her leg where better she would love to chase toys and run around. I would be so grateful if y’all will help make Zena better so she can play with other puppies and continue to have a better life in a loving home such as mine.

    There are some great pictures of the dog, and a nasty x-ray of the double break.

    Thanks Another Scott for donating.

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  4. 4
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    These assholes just declared an open invitation to be confiscated and turned into publicly owned utilities with no compensation at all.

    There will be outrage. The Homer Simpsons will something something with no cold beer and no TV.

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  5. 5
    Another Scott says:

    Um, yeah, they need better procedures than blacking out nearly a million customers. But they need to do something so that they don’t burn down the state again. :-(

    In other news – Reuters:

    An unnamed cabinet minister cited by the newspaper said that a “very large number” of Conservative members of parliament will quit if it comes to a no-deal Brexit.

    The Times said that ministers had warned Johnson in a cabinet meeting about the “grave” risk of the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland and raised concerns about Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most senior adviser.

    “Cabinet will set the strategy, not unelected officials. If this is an attempt to do that then it will fail”, the report quoted another cabinet minister as saying.

    The report comes as the European Union accused Britain of playing a “stupid blame game” over Brexit after a Downing Street source told Reuters a deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands.

    BoJo doesn’t seem to have any idea how to do this politics thing, either. Who is going to blink? Anyone?

    (sigh)

    Cheers,
    Scott.

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  6. 6
    Amir Khalid says:

    Why is the power transmission infrastructure in California a potential fire hazard in the first place?

    ReplyReply
  7. 7
    Mary G says:

    Well, I’d say I’m happy I have San Diego Gas & Electric, but manage to shut down even when there’s no wind.

    ReplyReply
  8. 8
    NotMax says:

    @laura

    An unopened freezer is generally good for 24 hours (partially full), up to 48 hours (if full). Guideline, of course, as also dependent on outside temps.

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  9. 9
    Jager says:

    We live in Ventura County, our local CERT (The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program is an all-risk, all-hazard training. This valuable course is designed to help you protect yourself, your family, your neighbors and your neighborhood in an emergency situation) guy was out and about today dropping off the info he had.
    We have a solar lighting set up and plenty of battery lanterns and flashlights, we cook with gas. If that is off, we have camping gear. If it gets bad, we have escape boxes and food ready to go. Two sets of batteries for the trusty old boom box, We’ve been through this shit before.

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  10. 10
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka) 🗳🌷 says:

    @NotMax:
    @laura:
    Particularly those who use insulin and use CPAP machines

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  11. 11
    jl says:

    @NotMax: ha ha ha ha… This is PG&E we’re talking about. If the management has anything to say about it, it will be half-ass. I don’t understand how these crooks keep getting away with it. Edit: this is not the first power shutdown. In the recent one north of SF, the notice was pretty rudimentary, and unreliable notice of when power was turned back on, not enough front line workers were allocated to help with turning service back on. Some counties didn’t have resources to give any real assistance, and PG&E wasn’t required to help with that. Allocated state assistance is sitting in Sacto for some reason and wasn’t used. A mess.

    It may change. I’ve heard local news interviews, and I hear people grumbling that PG&E maintaining their equipment and obeying safety regulations would be better than massive shut-offs. If PG&E can whine about having to cover fixed costs with lower revenue and manage to get the rates jacked up to compensate for the loss of revenue, maybe enough people will get wise to their racket and shut them down. Several serious fires, definitely the San Bruno pipe explosion and the Paradise fire, were due to PG’s negligence and malfeasance. The company is officially a convicted criminal.

    There may be power outages in 34 counties (California has 58 counties, so that is more than half), and there are warnings it may be for up to five days.

    Quote from the link, from Jerry Hill, who’s represented the area where PG&E blew up San Bruno with it’s incompetent gas pipeline operation:

    “I think it is excessive,” said Hill, a long-time critic of the utility. ”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.”

    (Hill said 31 counties, but story said 34 will be impacted, I don’t know what is up with that. Maybe they are adding counties to the list just for kicks).

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  12. 12
    Mary G says:

    @Amir Khalid: Somebody who knows much more about it than I do can explain better, but the transformers at the top of the poles get bashed by the wind and fail in a shower of sparks, or the whole pole falls down, breaking live wires that spark, or tree branches come down in the wind, etc.

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  13. 13
    Dmbeaster says:

    The expense to rebuild the infrastructure to eliminate the fire risk is crazy. Its shut off the power on occasion, or double your electric bill (if that is enough). Does not matter whether its private or public.

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  14. 14
    SoupCatcher says:

    I live in Santa Clara County (south San Jose; Santa Teresa neighborhood) and we’re either going to be turned off, or in the clear by about 100 yards. PG&E’s online map says one thing, but the alerts they’ve been blasting to my cel phone say another, so we’re operating under the assumption that we’ll be without power for up to a few days. And the temperature has been around 90.

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  15. 15
    Mary G says:

    Explainer in Wired Magazine: Power Shutoffs Can’t Save California From Wildfire Hell.

    The hard truth is that California is built to burn. For decades, the state has stamped out wildfires instead of letting them burn naturally, causing fuel to accumulate. And Californians can’t help but keep building homes right up against wildlands, often in wind-funneling valleys, putting themselves literally in the line of fire.

    PG&E bears outsize responsibility for this mess; its dismal safety record includes 17 major wildfires in 2017 alone. Miles upon miles of electrical lines criss-cross the landscape, providing ample opportunity for ignition. A solution might be to bury the lines, but that’s expensive and often not feasible in rocky regions. In an ideal world, all of these mountain towns would operate on their own self-contained, solar-powered microgrids, but that too is wildly expensive.

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  16. 16
    NotMax says:

    @Mary G

    Used to have frequent outages here from salt build-up on transformers shorting them out when it rained.

    Took a lot of time but the power company finally wised up and periodically sprays down the most vulnerable equipment to mitigate the build-up of salt from ocean breezes.

    ReplyReply
  17. 17
    jl says:

    @Mary G:
    And when some hypothetical company, let’s call it Peculation Greed and Explosion, knows accidents like that are more likely to happen with old worn out equipment, and they don’t do anything about it, and they don’t maintain proper clearance of branches and brush, then it’s really unfair and not nice to them when those accidents happen. It is very unfair to them when they are notified of equipment problems right before and during hazardous weather conditions, and don’t do squat about for over a day, and then a fire starts.

    Very unfair to them. Anyway, I wouldn’t judge how we live now by what PG&E does, I’t like judging modern statecraft and diplomacy by looking at what Trump does.

    To be fair, I have always gotten A+ excellent service from their front line workers, It’s the management that’s rotten. An outside audit found that their risk analysis and management division was not properly trained, and were not competent to perform their tasks up to a reasonable standard.

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  18. 18
    Dmbeaster says:

    @Amir Khalid: I have lived in California for 50 years. A very large portion of the state is highly flammable during the fire season, and power lines cannot avoid miles of lines in hazardous areas. The state is subject to very high winds, and fires can get started for all sorts of reasons. At times of high winds, wildfires are unstoppable. The only hope is to let it burn, but protect structures just as the fire arrives at that location. Many areas cannot be protected even then, and the firefighters just let the structures burn.

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  19. 19
    jl says:

    @Dmbeaster: ” The expense to rebuild the infrastructure to eliminate the fire risk is crazy. ”

    Yes it is, when you let the equipment rot for decades. Other power companies in CA have been doing power shut offs, I’ve never heard about anything like this. Other utilities can install up-to-date equipment to do automatic shut-offs of local lines.if there is a malfunction because of high wind. If anyone is familiar with how Dan Diego Gas and Electric does it, let me know. I’ve read they have a much better safety system than PG&E

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  20. 20
    Ken says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    Why is the power transmission infrastructure in California a potential fire hazard in the first place?

    Saves on maintenance costs.

    ReplyReply
  21. 21
    divF says:

    The boundaries for shutdown around these parts are strange. According to PG&E, the power at our house will remain on. However, the DOE lab five blocks away and uphill, and the UC campus five blocks away and downhill, are announcing that their power will be off starting at midnight tonight, for all of tomorrow (at least).

    I wonder if they are trying to keep their residential and small commercial customers up and running while shutting down big institutional users.

    ReplyReply
  22. 22
    mrmoshpotato says:

    @Mary G:

    Well, I’d say I’m happy I have San Diego Gas & Electric, but manage to shut down even when there’s no wind.

    And then there was that 1997 T-Rex incident!

    ReplyReply
  23. 23
    Yarrow says:

    @Mary G:

    In an ideal world, all of these mountain towns would operate on their own self-contained, solar-powered microgrids, but that too is wildly expensive.

    It’s got to be cheaper than massive wildfires destroying towns every year and the resulting costs to rebuild. The question is, who pays for it. In a sane world, money to rebuild would be tied to putting in solar in those locations, but we don’t live in that kind of world.

    ReplyReply
  24. 24
    HumboldtBlue says:

    It’s been nice knowing you all.

    I take with me, in the face of the impending doomsday, lessons that may one day benefit the race of survivors who managed to outlive corporate fucking greed.

    They burned down Paradise, put up a corporate firewall.

    ReplyReply
  25. 25
    Kent says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    These assholes just declared an open invitation to be confiscated and turned into publicly owned utilities with no compensation at all. There will be outrage. The Homer Simpsons will something something with no cold beer and no TV.

    PG&E stock is massively held by public pensions in CA and around the country. So confiscating it and turning it public would hit some 0.1% types but also millions of smaller people who have it in their pensions. I’m not saying making utilities public isn’t a good idea. But this isn’t exactly ENRON. Unsexy utility stocks are widely held by public and private pension plans and things like university endowments.

    ReplyReply
  26. 26
    Kelly says:

    @laura: $10 worth of dry ice once held my freezer through a 4 day power failure. It would be handy to know in advance. I buy dry ice in the morning for any power failure that lasts overnight.

    ReplyReply
  27. 27
    mapghimagsik says:

    @jl: Amen. Their management reeks to high heaven — and there are pockets of middle management that have completely lost sight of their objectives and just exist to exist.

    ReplyReply
  28. 28
    tomtofa says:

    I’ve been trying to get info from the PG&E site since this morning – now it’s 9 pm and I’ve so far been unable to get a local map to load. A generic map shows the zone ending on the other side of our street. The mayor of San Jose, a little to the south, has warned residents to expect up to a week without power. I’ve gotten no text alerts on my phone, so hoping for the best.

    The reason for it is simple: if they shut the power down whenever there’s a danger of fire, and a fire happens, they have better defense against getting sued. Ken and jl in their comments above have it about right.

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  29. 29
    scott (the other one) says:

    I’ve got a couple of friends in the bay area who are absolutely convinced that, while the threat of fires is obviously real, this is a serious overreaction and a very deliberate one, in retaliation for the lawsuit. “Oh, you don’t think we handled the wildfires properly? Okay, then: how’s about no power? You like that?” A sort of nice city with electricity you got here–shame if somethin’ happened to it kinda way.

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  30. 30
    Mary G says:

    @jl: I have SDG&E, and a neighbor across the back fence who put in a bunch of bamboo under the wires. It’s constantly inspected, and if it gets too tall, the property owner is supposed to cut it or the utility will, for much more money. The neighbor never does, and has a nasty dog, so I let the contacters do it from my side.

    ReplyReply
  31. 31

    @Amir Khalid: Some of our power is hydro, so it’s generated in the mountains and you need power lines thought the forest to get it to the cities.

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  32. 32
    HumboldtBlue says:

    @scott (the other one):

    That’s not an uncommon reaction. Shutting off power to Eureka is not going to make Ukiah safer. It’s a middle finger to being held accountable for profit margins over infrastructure maintenance.

    ReplyReply
  33. 33
    gorram says:

    @Amir Khalid: to be fair, part of this is that the environmental conditions are making wildfires more likely and worse, so even if PG&E had had anything resembling reasonable policies (they haven’t), wildfire risk would be increased.

    But they’ve basically spent the last thirty years doing less (and less useful) land management to reduce wildfire risk from their infrastructure and refusing to replace aging equipment so that the risk of wildfire directly caused by them is much much worse than it needs to be because of climate change and such.

    Someone better versed in state policy can speak on it more, but the sense is that they’ve largely pocketed the money they saved by scaling back, rather than passing it on to the state or consumers.

    ReplyReply
  34. 34
    Ruckus says:

    I just looked up the possible shutdowns by SCE, who covers a lot of southern CA. Mostly rural areas are being hit but a number of canyon areas in LA county are scheduled to shut down.
    @Amir Khalid:
    As others have said it’s some the utilities fault but a lot of it is the weather in CA. We often get high winds in the warm months, with gusts to 50-60 mph, which is accompanied by extremely low humidity, in the single digits. And a lot of the natural brush in the hills and mountains is rather oily, because of the humidity. Heat, wind, extreme low humidity, and a spark can set off a fire like Paradise easily. This is not a new problem nor is it all the fault of the utilities, although some of them are worse than others. PG&E is a mess. Another part of the problem is the shear numbers of customers and wire that has to be strung to get to them. A lot of places have underground but that’s more expensive to put in and maintain, which would increase rates. Notice that it’s not just PG&E that is doing shut offs, it’s all companies with any dangerous exposure. Which is all of them.

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  35. 35
    cain says:

    @laura:
    Don’t worry, they can just hit a grocery store and grab some ice and.. oh.. wait.

    ReplyReply
  36. 36
    Ruckus says:

    Cal Fire has a lot of interesting info, for example the current fire danger map.
    The Cal Fire web site has much other info and is a great resource for fire info.
    ETA
    This fire stuff has been going on my entire life – I was born in LA, have lived in CA for all but 11 yrs of my life and fire is nothing new, nor are the causes. A huge reason they have gotten more noticed is the shear number of people and that they have spread out far and wide.

    ReplyReply
  37. 37
    Ruckus says:

    @Ruckus:
    State of CA census history.
    1850 92,597
    1960 15.72 million
    2018 39.56 million
    Estimate for 2020 census over 40 million maybe 41 million.

    ReplyReply
  38. 38
    Heywood J. says:

    I live near Chico, so have been geographically in the center of the catastrophic fire events in the North State over the past few years. We still have many displaced families from the Camp Fire dispersed throughout towns near Paradise; crime and traffic have ramped up significantly in Chico over the past year. Since I work for a local gov’t agency, I did some IT work in one of the response centers for the Camp Fire last year, communicate pretty regularly with the members of the county emergency response office, and have several ICS certs from over the years. Probably will be involved in some emergency shelter training scheduled for next month as well.

    We are expecting heavy winds (40-50 mph) starting tomorrow morning and lasting through Thursday, further drying out already dried vegetation and lowering humidity drastically. The week the Camp Fire started, the humidity in the area had dropped to around 5%. So PG&E, already having declared bankruptcy earlier this year and still facing billions of dollars in claims, is being extremely (perhaps overly) cautious in this instance, in preparing for these heavy, warm winds. But it’s also a tacit admission that their infrastructure — particularly in the most vulnerable, remote rural areas — is in bad shape, and needs to be buried or replaced ASAP. But when they crunch it into a population density breakeven, there’s no way to pencil it out, especially once you consider the terrain along those roads in many of the counties up here.

    What made the Camp Fire even worse is that there are only three roads out of Paradise, and one of them goes further back into the woods, so only two real escape routes, and one of those is mostly just a two-lane country road. So that left the Skyway, which is the main artery down the ridge into Chico, and was jammed up within minutes after the fire started.

    I think Matt Pearce’s tweet in the post is correct: this is an ancillary effect of accelerating climate change, magnified by the dire conditions of our infrastructure across the board — electrical grid, roads, flood control, and more, all directly affected by various aspects of climate change. The thing to keep in mind here as well is that we actually had a fairly mild summer and a fairly modest wildfire season, compared to the last few years. Wait till the next bad (regular) seasons arrive. And as soon as fire season ends now, it’s flood season. This is the new normal, and we’ve done nothing to prepare for it infrastructurally. What we saw out in the Midwest last spring is just the beginning.

    It’s a nice thought to let the state take over PG&E, but based on my anecdotal experience with various state agencies, they are probably not equipped to handle it. During the so-called Great Recession, many state agencies and departments simply didn’t replace staff that retired, leaving many units and departments understaffed on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Last time I dealt with the Dept. of Industrial Relations (2017), they had three (3) people in their NorCal elevator inspection unit (basically everything north of Sacramento and Santa Rosa), and were six to twelve months behind on elevator inspections (which are mandatory annually for public buildings). I’ve had similar experiences dealing with Fish and Game and a couple other state entities. They’re all very nice people doing the best they can, but there’s only so many of them to handle the workload. It’s unlikely the state has any department with the manpower and equipment necessary to take over something of that magnitude.

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  39. 39
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Ruckus:

    We haven’t gotten any notices from Burbank DWP that they’re going to cut us off due to fire danger. 🤔

    Funny how it seems to be the for-profit utilities having this problem, while the municipal utilities don’t.

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  40. 40
    Dmbeaster says:

    @gorram: They are a regulated monopoly, with their profit margin set by law and their costs subject to review and audit. It ends up being a big accounting dance with the regulators. They do not have any of the typical incentives. PG&E has a bad reputation. In theory, cutting corners that reduce cost would reduce their revenue, but I am sure they find ways to pocket it. Alternatively, they could justify increased costs for proper maintenance and increase revenue, but they dont.

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  41. 41
    Heywood J. says:

    @Ruckus: Yep, that’s a big factor as well — the population has simply grown and dispersed more quickly than infrastructure and response mechanisms can keep up with it or prepare for the next disaster. Too many people now live in areas that could previously just burn because they were away from population centers.

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  42. 42
    Ruckus says:

    @Mnemosyne:
    Depends on the municipal utility. LA DWP and some of the city utilities have a lot more buried power. SCE for example has as a lot of wilderness and a lot of very high voltage overhead lines because of where power is generated and where the customers are. There are very high voltage lines on the poles in front of my current place and a half mile south, the street I work on has 20,000 volt overhead lines. I know because the poles have the voltage listed. One of those lines goes down….. Now SCE seems to be a bit more conscientious than PG&E but PG&E have, I believe a lot bigger service area and a lot of it is basically wilderness.

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  43. 43
    Mohagan says:

    I live just outside of Ukiah and expect to lose our power. For how many days we don’t know. Ukiah itself is expected to keep power since the city has its own power generator. I have a friend whose husband works for PG&E (as a lineman or something boots on the ground like that), and he’s retired 2x from them, and they keep bringing him back because they don’t have enough trained crews to deal and fix all the infrastructure problems. I’m 68 and he is not much younger.

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  44. 44
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Dmbeaster:

    I think PG&E is the company that made themselves notorious during the CA “energy crisis” in 2000 by transferring all of their profits to their parent company on the East Coast and then claiming they were on the verge of bankruptcy unless they got a ransom payment from the state.

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  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Ruckus:

    I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere in So Cal where I didn’t have municipal power — LA DWP to Glendale DWP to Burbank DWP.

    ReplyReply
  46. 46
    wv blondie says:

    @Ken: Ding ding ding ding ding! We have a winner!

    This is something I know a little about (long story – don’t get me started). Utility companies, particularly (but not only) those still using coal-fired generation plants, cut back on “O&M Expenses” – operations and maintenance – to help prop up their bottom lines. Just call up a transcript of an earnings call for PG&E, FirstEnergy, AEP, etc., and you’ll almost always hear the CEO/CFO/C-O talking about that.

    This happens even though ratepayers pay for O&M every year, costs set by the state commissions that regulate the utilities. The commissions never demand that the utilities either use their allocated O&M or return the funds to ratepayers (at least not in any case I’ve ever looked at). And the commissions apparently never listen to the earnings calls where the execs brag about cutting O&M in order to help their share prices.

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  47. 47
    J R in WV says:

    @Belafon:

    I’ve kicked in $75… we have two new 7 m old puppies and I would be devastated if one was hurt that badly and I couldn’t afford the sudden medical cost. They are so sweet and have already learned so much about being house dogs instead of farm yard dogs.

    Everyone should go see this giant puppy, so cute!

    ReplyReply
  48. 48
    WaterGirl says:

    I am going to blockquote.

    Quote this.

    edit: adding this

    ReplyReply

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