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Here we go again.

Less than two weeks after shutting down electric service to much of Northern California in a desperate attempt to avoid yet another wildfire caused by power lines, Pacific Gas and Electric Company says it might turn out the lights again as soon as Wednesday in 17 counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Marin.

Wait, there's more.

On Friday, PG&E's chief executive told state regulators that it could be 10 years before the utility can upgrade its systems enough that it won't have to rely on preemptive power outages during dry, windy conditions.

Imagine a decade of schools and businesses forced to close with little warning, food spoiling in refrigerators, navigating busy intersections without traffic lights, phone batteries fading out and all the other hazards that come with a blackout, including the environmental impacts from widespread use of diesel- and gasoline-powered generators.

It's still fire season, and safety is paramount, but California boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world, and residents shouldn't be reduced to living in third world conditions by common fall weather conditions.

Santa Rosa City Council members should weigh that carefully Tuesday as they consider a proposal to ban gas appliances in new homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Beginning next year, state law will require all new homes to have solar panels, but they don't work during a power outage without an optional battery storage system. Shifting to electric appliances is an obvious next step, in Santa Rosa and statewide, but maybe it ought to wait for a more reliable power grid, or until people have a reasonable chance to add battery storage to solar power systems.

State officials, meanwhile, are demanding answers about PG&E's communication failures and the immense scope of the Oct. 9-12 outage, which affected more than a million people in 34 counties. PG&E is offering assurances that future outages will be smoother, and it looks as if we may find out this week.

State officials need to do more.

For starters, they must press PG&E for details of CEO Bill Johnson's assertion that it will be 10 years before the need for preemptive outages is "ratcheted down significantly." What upgrades are required to avoid, or at least more precisely target, power outages? What will those upgrades cost? Why can't they be finished faster?

PG&E has asked the state for help financing damages from past wildfires, including the North Bay fires in 2017, with low-interest bonds. Could state-issued bonds expedite infrastructure upgrades so smaller sections of the grid could be shut down during red-flag conditions? And should ratepayers share the cost? It wouldn't be popular, but PG&E didn't cause climate change, though it should be held accountable for failing to maintain power lines.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for rebates of $100 for residential customers and $250 for small businesses affected by this month's outage. While a financial hit might encourage more precision in the future, we think Newsom should take Johnson up on his offer to discuss whether the state should assume decision-making authority for public safety power outages. That would add transparency and accountability to a process that has left too many Californians stuck in the dark — and cannot be allowed to continue on a regular basis for the next 10 years.

— The Santa Rosa Press Democrat



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