PG&E instigated the blackouts in response to dangerous weather conditions—strong seasonal winds primed to dry out vegetation and stoke wildfires—that could jostle power lines and other equipment, sending sparks onto flammable vegetation below. But not all power lines are created equal.“What PG&E is doing is blacking out the kind of low voltage wires that deliver power to homes,” says Wara. “But, typically, big commercial customers, like a tech headquarters ... tend to be located closer to the bulk transmission system [and] the high voltage lines, which are much less impacted by this outage.”
The types of power lines traditionally seen dangling overhead in residential areas and neighborhoods are considered more of a wildfire risk because of their proximity to the ground and increased likelihood of being surrounded by trees and other forms of vegetation, he explained. Bulky high-voltage transmission lines—which are designed to carry large amounts of energy to large industrial users and local distributors—just aren’t vulnerable in the same way. Wara says they tend to be built to higher standards, making them less prone to wind damage.
“The lines in the South Bay where the tech headquarters are, like in Mountain View and Santa Clara County, are [surrounded by] wide open space—there's basically no vegetation. It's flat,” which makes it an even lower fire risk, Wara explained. “The mountains in between Silicon Valley and the ocean, [however,] are covered in forests, extremely high risk, and covered in very valuable real estate.” Hence, the blackout.