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Do California power shutoffs work? Hard to know, experts say

Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to parts of California to try to prevent wildfires. File photo

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Millions of Californians spent part of the week in the dark in an unprecedented effort by the state’s large electrical utilities to prevent another devastating wildfire. It was the fifth time Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has preemptively cut the power but by far the largest to date in the utility’s effort to prevent a deadly wildfire sparked by its power lines.

But do the power shut-offs actually prevent fires?

Experts say it’s hard to know what might have happened had the power stayed on, or if the utility’s proactive shutoffs are to thank for California’s mild fire season this year.

“It’s like trying to prove a negative,” said Alan Scheller-Wolf, professor of operations management and an energy expert at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “They can’t prove they prevented a disaster because there’s no alternative universe where they didn’t try this.”

The winds that prompted the mass outage that affected nearly 2 million people in northern and central parts of the state shifted southward by Friday, where a wind-fueled wildfire led officials to order the evacuation of 100,000 people from their homes in foothills of the San Fernando Valley.

California is experiencing the first major fire activity of the season after two years that brought some of the most devastating fires on record, many of them caused by utility equipment. Until Monday, fires had covered only about 5% of the acreage burned by that date last year, and only about 13% of the average for the last five years.

But it’s too early — and maybe impossible — to tell if that can be attributed to increased measures to cut power.

“We have good reason to be skeptical, and the reason is that PG&E bears the costs of starting a fire, but they don’t bear the costs of shutting off power,” said Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

He noted that weather forecasting is notoriously difficult, “so even if PG&E were doing the best possible job, it would not get it right sometimes.”

PG&E said in a statement that employees located 23 spots where parts of its systems were damaged during the strong winds, but officials have declined to provide details, saying it will be included in a state-mandated report.

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