A glimpse behind northern California blackouts, the Briar Patch Food Co-op in Grass Valley

by Brian Bahouth

On Tuesday evening, the power was out across most of northern California. The outage map was stunning in its breadth of red dots stretching from the Nevada state line to the Pacific Ocean.

One year ago, a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) power line was found to be the cause of the now infamous Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings and erased the town of Paradise.

Now, during high wind events, PG&E has chosen to shut off power to fire prone parts of the state rather than risk another catastrophe.

The twin cities of Nevada City and Grass Valley in Nevada County, California are 50 miles south southeast from the remains of Paradise, in an eerily similar topographic setting. Residents have fretted the danger of wildfire long before the last year’s Camp Fire devastation. With an unprecedented wind event buffeting the northern half of the state, Nevada City and environs were in the dark Tuesday night with expected low temperatures around freezing.

After the second Public Safety Power Shutoff, PG&E set up a diesel generator system to serve critical services with low fire risk in the city of Grass Valley. The small power allotment includes the hospital, the wastewater treatment plant and a few homes and businesses to include the Brian Patch Food Co-op. And while the Co-op’s solar array does provide 51 percent of the facility’s electric power needs, Chris Maher, general manager of the Co-op has been scrambling for weeks to not only save perishable items but to also meet the unusual needs of people without power.

“I think we’re in number six right now,” Maher said when asked to describe the power supply over recent weeks and months. “They (power outages) have been semi-frequent and in some cases coming right on the heels of each other. Notification has usually come about 12 to 24 hours ahead of the proposed start time for the blackout and it’s come by alerts, which customers, whether business or residential, opt into. So you have to be in-the-know to get these alerts. Otherwise, it’s coming through the news media as best they’re able to get access to the information.”

The Grass Valley/Nevada City area is one of the most abundant boutique agriculture scenes in the nation. The Briar Patch is an expression of that agricultural wealth, but it is more than a grocery store. The Co-op has maintained a retail outlet for 43 years. Along with the best in local agricultural products and healthfully prepared foods, the co-op is a place to talk. The community, Co-op staff and board of directors take the communal model of ownership seriously.

“I like to call our patio, the front porch of Nevada County,” Maher said. “Because I think that really captures that the Co-op is not just a grocery store. It’s a multi-faceted resource for our community. We’re very vibrant in that way. We have a lot of two-way conversation with our owners. That helps us to understand what the needs are in the community so that we can seek to meet and to address them, and that’s been on full display with these outages because we are one of the few places where there is power, light, hot water, warm food, Wi Fi, you know, the essentials. Our parking lot is full right now because we have so many people that are just coming here to get some of those things and to be with each other and make the best of a challenging situation.”

What are people saying about the blackouts?

“It is hard to characterize,” Maher said after pausing to think. “There isn’t just one voice here because people are having their own specific troubles with this. There’s a lot of confusion. There is certainly a desire to avoid any catastrophes by fire, and in as much as on the surface of this is meant to accomplish that goal, people are trying to put on a best face. Whether this is really a solution to that problem or not, I think is definitely being questioned.”

Maher said a lack of information is central to the frustration and anger aimed at PG&E.

“I sense that the number-one frustration is that the level of communication that we are receiving about what we can expect and when has been confusing and severely lacking at best. Were this supported with better communication from PG&E, there would be a lot less frustration and a lot more cooperation.”

Before 1935, urban-based power companies were reluctant to run lines to rural communities unless potential customers paid to have them installed, and once complete, deed the infrastructure back to the utility. In service to local interests, electrical cooperatives arose from larger utilities’ inability to serve rural communities.

In 1935, by executive order, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rural Electrification Administration. Today, according to America’s Electric Cooperatives, there are more than 900 electric co-ops in the US that serve 56 percent of the continental land mass. As manager of a highly democratic and bountiful food cooperative, Chris Maher looks to the energy cooperative model as a solution to current energy problems.

“There’s a long history in our country going back to the earliest examples of electric power grids being set up as cooperatively owned utility companies. It’s actually one of the most common forms of cooperatives in the United States. The benefit of a cooperatively owned utility is that it is not split in trying to bring value to customers and to non-customer shareholders. They don’t have to make decisions by both parties. Cooperatively owned utilities have one group of stakeholders, and that’s their customers. So we’re looking to the future for solutions. I would certainly hope that cooperative utilities might be on the table for discussion.”

For now, coping with matters at hand is the challenge. That the Co-op has power has been a boon for the community. The parking lot, which is partially covered with solar panels, has been full with many coming to the Co-op for a sense of community and to share information as much as food, both cooked and uncooked. Because the Co-op has had power since the second blackout, Maher said Briar Patch has it better than a lot of businesses who might still be without electricity and watching perishable stock rot. Maher said, for the Co-op, the ultimate effects of the blackouts will not be known for months.

“Those first couple outages were devastating. We lost a tremendous amount of product which will have a meaningful impact on the bottom line. So how it all shakes out in dollars and cents, we will learn that in the weeks to come as we get through the holidays and the end of the year. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s not tangential.”

To make thousands of miles of PG&E power lines fireproof or to launch and develop a local energy cooperative will take years. Until then, wind events and the threat of wildfire will continue to menace communities in the foothills and mountains of northern California.

In his many public statements about the ongoing fires and power shutoffs, California Governor Gavin Newsom has pointed a finger at climate change as the root cause of enhanced fire danger. California is arguably the nation’s leading state in it’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Nevada City/Grass Valley area has long been a weighty ideological center of gravity for sustainable, off-the-grid living and continues that tradition today. We asked Maher if the blackouts had the upside of pointedly spurring the development of renewable energy in the area.

“I think the upshot is that it’s stimulating conversation about what the current state of being is with regard to how we get power at the Co-op and in our community as a whole,” Maher said. “People are more aware of where the weak points are for sure. It’s hard to see an upside to this at all. I think that this is incredibly disruptive, and we’re going to see a lot of impacts for months and probably years.”

Brian Bahouth reports on the environment and money in the public sphere. Brian has been a public media producer since the late 1990s. Take a moment and support his work.

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