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Public Safety Power Shutoffs, the new normal?


November 9, 2019

Mark La Ciura

On the first day of the third outage (the fourth for the South Street businesses), the only gas station open in the town and outlying areas was the Mobil Station on South Street and Valley Boulevard, featured in the photo above. Evidently the owner of the facility possesses a massive generator. The gas lines moved very slowly and went around the block. A number of Tehachapi residents opted to go to Mojave for gas as an alternative.

Public Safety Power Shutoffs: a topic swirling in controversy. There are many opinions about why they are necessary, whether they are necessary, whether they prevent fires, whether the power companies are profiting from these outages, or whether the safety outages are happening as fallout from PG&E filing for bankruptcy. According to many sources, it is indisputable that PG&E and the other electric utilities do bear responsibility for many of the wildfires which have plagued California in recent times. Decades of poor power line maintenance and allowing overgrowth near power lines (a California state policy choice) combined with the typical autumn high winds and dry conditions have produced unprecedented wildfire conditions in California. As some experts say, California is a tinderbox. Additionally, according to Liam Dillon of the Los Angeles Times, many Californians are moving from cities to more rural areas which has led to more robust building in wildfire-prone areas.

In addition to the power companies' culpability, because of poorly maintained and antiquated infrastructure, the State of California's poor land management policies have been a major contributing factor to the increase in massive wildfires. The bottom line is that this is a multi-faceted issue with various and complicated causes and solutions.

In our small town, many of us, businesses and individuals, have been unprepared for the disruption to our lives brought about by these power outages and the ensuing financial impact. The impact has been profound, although not as profound as if there had been fires. By the time these outages are over Greg Garrett, our City Manager, figures that economic losses will total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, businesses on South Street have been impacted by the public safety outages each time one has been initiated, a total of four times as of October 31. Blacksmith Automotive has only been able to perform repairs and maintenance that the mechanics can do on the ground; lifts are stuck with vehicles in the air until power returns. Not to mention that most customers pay with debit or credit cards and, without power, customers cannot pay their bills and pick up their vehicles. This is a common problem with most businesses which is why some, like Pioneer Hardware, chose to close each time there was an outage. The owner of Blacksmith says it would take $3,000 to $5,000 to outfit the shop with a generator and proper wiring and they still may not be able to operate the entire shop. This is a dilemma faced by the majority of automobile repair shops during a blackout. In contrast, although Hemme Hay has a generator and can accept credit and debit cards during power outages, they are also able to stay open because they operate the old fashioned way, using paper, and accepting cash and checks. In fact, being a feed store, business has been booming.

Murphys Diesel & Auto Repair has a backup plan with a 1,200 watt generator already in place; however, it costs roughly about $150 daily to run the generator. Business is also down about 50 percent as customers cancel their appointments or divert the money for vehicle repairs into buying generators and paying electricians.

The manager of NAPA/Kern Auto Parts figures the Tehachapi store has lost more than $20,000 in just a few weeks during the month of October with the four outages. A 9,000 watt generator was purchased after the first outage, but paying for extension cords, electricians and gasoline to run the generator has been expensive. Lost sales have accounted for the bulk of the economic loss.

Businesses in the small shopping center which houses The Butcher Shop on Valley Blvd. have also been adversely affected by the majority of the outages. The Butcher Shop has had to close with each outage due to Health Department regulations and the inability to process sales. The shop was able to keep the majority of their product safe during the first outage but the two-day outage in late October generated a lot of waste and loss of revenue.

Businesses in Bear Valley Springs have also suffered devastating losses. The Bear Valley Market has been heavily impacted and has lost thousands of dollars in food waste and lost sales. Much food waste also occurred at the Oak Tree Country Club with the first outage, as well as employees' lost wages. A generator has been purchased which should minimize future waste but the ability to run an entire establishment, including the lounge, is prohibitively expensive. The Mulligan Room has also had to close with each outage, also resulting in lost wages and tips for employees.

Individuals have had to throw out refrigerated food if they don't have a power backup source. Many have lost wages due to the inability to get to work or the necessity of staying home with children who were out of school due to the outages, involvement in the care of seniors, handicapped or people with chronic medical issues. Those on medical devices are affected and, in extreme circumstances, fatally. Failed home security systems can potentially provide the opportunity for increased criminal activity. Luckily, according to the Tehachapi Police Department, we have suffered no fatalities nor has there been an increase in criminal activity. Another benefit of living in a relatively safe small town.

Cummings Valley Elementary School has had to close with almost each power outage and Golden Hills Elementary has lost two school days as of October 31. Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson states that the District can apply for a waiver (Form J-13A) with the California Department of Education requesting that no makeup days be required for conditions closing schools that are beyond anyone's control. Lower attendance at the schools that do remain open can occur, as well. The effects of school closure are far reaching. Some students depend on eating breakfast and lunch at school each school day, for example. Schools also cannot automatically reopen once power is restored as the maintenance staff needs to inspect the buildings and grounds for safety concerns.

To an extent never experienced before, our lives and livelihoods are totally reliant on an absolute need for reliable power. The dozens of ways in which we are impacted, from care in assisted living, nursing homes and medical facilities, to simply being able to buy gas or diesel for vehicles, to where the next meal is coming from in an area with a large power outage is overwhelming.

We are living in a high risk area. When natural (or planned) disasters strike, we are an island on the top of a mountain. We especially saw the implications of this in October 2015 when parts of the 58 and 5 freeways were closed due to mudslides, which impacted commuters and travelers, as well as deliveries of groceries and other goods.

There is, however, a positive aspect to this chaos. This is an opportunity for all of us who are without backup power to formulate a plan. Energy resources in homes and businesses make customers less reliant on utility companies and more resilient in the face of both planned and unplanned power outages or natural disasters.

The most popular plan is purchasing a generator. Depending on one's budget, a generator can be wired into one's home or business or extension cords can be used. Tractor Supply Co. and The Home Depot are trying to keep generators in stock and have had emergency shipments within the last two weeks of October.

Another option is solar energy. The drawback, however, is that solar energy cannot be accessed without storage batteries during an outage. Storage batteries can be added onto a solar purchase, although it usually involves purchasing more than one battery, which can run $5,000 to $7,000 per battery, and may not run an entire household or business.

We are lucky to live in a small town. At the very least, neighbors help neighbors. One young man recently related a story about a gentleman who bought a larger generator for an elderly couple who only had a smaller generator and then went over to their home every few hours to make certain the generator had enough gas and was working properly. We are blessed that such acts of kindness are not uncommon in our town.


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