Here’s How State Regulators Played A Role In California’s Rolling Blackouts, Wildfires

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Chris White Tech Reporter

November 02, 2019 7:34 PM ET

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom railed against the state’s public utility company for blacking out large portions of the state, but some experts say regulators are partially to blame.
  • Regulators in the state are too preoccupied with solar panels, climate change and keeping customers’ rates low to update old transmission lines that can create wildfires, experts say.
  • Newsom, a Democrat, says he is considering taking over the utility company if it cannot get its finances together.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other critics are blasting the public utility company responsible for rolling blackouts, but some experts argue regulators’ obsession with climate change is partially to blame.

Newsom suggested Friday taking over Pacific Gas & Electric, a public utility company that shut off electricity recently to nearly 1 million customers to prevent potential wildfires. The California Democrat argued that PG&E’s greed and corruption are leading to the massive blackouts.

“It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement,” Newsom told reporters on Oct. 25. He has not let up, telling reporters Friday that the financially strapped utility might be centralized if it can’t right its ship.

The blackouts were intended to forestall wildfires, which have stymied the state for two years. This has led to a spotty success rate. PG&E told state regulators in an October filing that one of the utility’s snapped wires was found on a transmission tower near where the Kincade Fire began.

That fire, which began on Oct. 23 and is currently 70% contained, charred 77,758 acres in Northern California. Other fires are also wreaking havoc. The Easy Fire and Maria Fire in Southern California, for instance, are charring 1,860 acres and 9,412 acres, respectively.

A house burns during wildfires in San Bernardino, California, U.S., Oct. 31, 2019 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. (Reuters)

PG&E’s equipment is not responsible for all of the fires, but investigators found in 2018 that broken or fallen distribution lines caused 12 Northern California wildfires in the October 2017 Fire Siege. Yet experts say PG&E is not entirely to blame for the chao

California’s wildfires are due to several factors, none of them pertaining to climate change, according to University of Washington climate scientist Cliff Mass. California is getting crowded, leading to higher probabilities of wildfires, he told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“Poorly maintained electrical infrastructure” and strong, dry winds are playing a significant role, Mass said, adding: Anyone who is citing climate change as a major factor is merely shifting the blame.

Rolling blackouts are a sensible solution given the dense population in large sections of California and the public utility’s rickety infrastructure, Mass noted. In fact, the massive blackouts likely helped reduce potential wildfires despite Kincade and others, he added.

Other experts are making similar arguments. Regulators and consumer advocate groups were too preoccupied with other considerations to fireproof transmission lines, according to Ted Nordhaus, an environmental policy expert and director of research at the Breakthrough Institute.

“To whatever degree PG&E prioritized profits over maintenance, it can’t account for failure to fire-proof transmission and distribution network. It just wasn’t priority for anyone, including regulators and consumer groups,” Nordhaus noted in a Twitter thread Monday.

Regulators who control PG&E’s funding have focused on climate change and other things instead, he stated. (RELATED: Here’s What Wildfires Are Doing To California As Citizens Cope With Rolling Blackouts)

The company spent more than half a billion dollars in 2018 on electric discounts for low-income citizens and another $125 million for efficiency upgrades, The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board noted in an Oct. 25 editorial. PG&E has also used $7.5 billion in allowances since 2012 to pay for reduced emissions.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California State Capitol on March 13, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California lawmakers passed an ordinance in 2015 requiring utilities to pay $100 million annually on solar systems in low-income areas, The WSJ Editorial Board noted. That is in addition to the $2.2 billion in rebates the utilities must offer customers for rooftop solar installations. A ratepayer advocacy division within California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is complicating matters.

CPUC’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA) argues against maintenance and safety expenditures to keep rates low for customers, according to an application PG&E made to CPUC in 2012 to increase rates. PG&E noted in the document that ORA’s other priorities are making it difficult to maintain current infrastructure.

PG&E, which is bankrupt as a result of costs accrued as a result of deadly fires in 2018, is meanwhile under pressure to keep the lights on while at the same time monitoring old transmission lines that are susceptible to fire. The investor-owned public utility is still providing campaign cash to multiple California politicians, Republican and Democrat alike.

Newsom and his allies, for instance, took $208,400 from PG&E during his run for governor in 2018, California’s ABC10 noted in a July investigation. PG&E gave the governor the maximum amount of $58,400 and gave another $150,000 to a political spending group supporting his candidacy.

PG&E also donated more than $800,000 directly to candidate campaigns and another $3 million to political groups, which ultimately went back into candidates’ war chests, according to ABC10’s investigation, which relied on state records.

Newsom’s office has not provided the DCNF a statement regarding the governor’s handling of the blackouts or wildfires. PG&E has also not responded to multiple requests for comment, nor has CPUC.

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77 thoughts on “Here’s How State Regulators Played A Role In California’s Rolling Blackouts, Wildfires

  1. The Governor (read Democrats) taking over your Utility Company is going to work our really well for you, California.

    • There it is—socialism at its finest. Goverment control of the means of production. California leads the way, as it should be.

          • Calizuela, here I come
            Where green madness started from.
            Where showers make flowers bloom in the spring
            And summer’s a bummer, parching almost everything, so
            When the wind blows power lines down
            All the locals flee their towns
            Thanks to politician clowns-
            Calizuela, here I come!

    • Here’s hoping Gov. Gruesome follows through on his threat and hands control of their private utility to feckless bureaucrats. It will accelerate the disaster of California’s reckless kakistocracy and reveal the delights of government under central party rule, ultimately swinging the populace back to responsible Republican governance. Eventually. After citizens flee en masse and the toilet paper runs out.

    • If he takes over PG&E, what will be his whipping boy then? Who will he blame for the inevitable disasters?

      Himself? Get Real.

    • Bill Powers:

      The Governor does not need to take over any Utility Company. The Company should be required to operate according to a license, and failure to fulfil the requirements of the license should mean the license being withdrawn and made available to competitor companies. Such licenses are issued by e.g. the UK government.

      In his above article ‘Charles The Moderator reports,
      ““To whatever degree PG&E prioritized profits over maintenance, it can’t account for failure to fire-proof transmission and distribution network. It just wasn’t priority for anyone, including regulators and consumer groups,” Nordhaus noted in a Twitter thread Monday.”

      Avoiding “rolling blackouts” from any cause would be a “priority” if the avoidance were a license requirement that would put the company out of business if not fulfilled.

      Richard

      • re: “Avoiding “rolling blackouts””

        HWGA.

        ANOTHER one that doesn’t understand ‘power cuts’ for safety reasons versus actual ‘rolling blackouts’ b/c of a lack of generation assets or capability.

        Learn the correct terms, then use them.

    • “The Governor (read Democrats) taking over your Utility Company is going to work our really well for you, California.”

      It has worked out well for residents of Democrat Seattle and Los Angeles where the cities both own and operate their respective power companies (Seattle City Light and .LADWP). For example. Seattle City Light’s rates are so low they only bill once every two months.

      • How many tax dollars does Seattle spend Seattle City Light?

        Face it, it’s either tax dollars or rates. Money has to be spent. The city of Seattle probably pays for all the excess executive salaries in order to keep “rates” low.

        • Absolutely Zero. Seattle City Light is completely rate financed. Since it does not need to make a profit, does not speculate in the stock market (like FPL for example), focuses strictly on delivery of electricity, it can keep it rates low.

  2. Wonder if anyone has done a calculation of the emissions from the fires burning compared to the $7.4 billion spent on reducing emissions results at reducing since 2012?

    This is a political issue about power. Utilities are basically government run except allowing the utility to invest in supply on their own. In this case they were forced to invest in certain renewables so they have been government run for a long time with shareholders. If they take PG&E over then they’re taking control of a company they already ran. Furthermore if that is true and probably mostly true then any political campaign donations came from a government run utility. Interesting to think that way but it’s true. Funneled money to themselves. Anybody thoughts or backup to that line of logic?

    • Big difference between Government regulated and Government run Glenn. You are mixing them together as the same thing. The running part is something politicians do not do now. If you think Californians have problems with black outs today, just wait until the bureaucrats are directing the hard hats.

  3. Climate “experts” : we need to make expensive drastic changes in our life styles to prevent wildfires
    Democrats & liberals : Great !

    Forestry experts : we need to thin out forests to prevent wildfires
    Democrats & liberals : F you

  4. The Governor of California, @GavinNewsom, has done a terrible job of forest management. I told him from the first day we met that he must “clean” his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him. Must also do burns… .Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states…

    https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1190995034163892226

  5. When it comes to greed, nobody takes a back seat to politicians.

    This is a classic socialist trope. Tie a company down with regulations, then declare that the problem is capitalism. Finally have the government take it over. Which was the goal all along.

    • Taking over a utility is a double edged sword. If the government owns the utility, the taxpayers will rightly hold the government responsible for anything they don’t like about it. As far as I can tell, some governments have privatized utilities to get rid of that burden.

      The reason PG&E is bankrupt is that it was sued. If the government takes over, the government can be sued. That creates an almost infinite downside for the government.

      Threatening to take over PG&E is meat headed.

  6. The road to socialism. PG&E workforce would be required to join the state public unions and be a part of CalPERS for retirement. That cost would be tacked onto the electric bills.

    • Outstanding … and utterly frightening … point.

      And let me assure you, that despite paying the HIGHEST electric rates in the country (or maybe 2nd place) … we ratepayers are just about to see a gigantic rate increase to pay for the deferred maintenance created by decades of PG&E mismanagement. It is just like our recent spike in gasoline taxes … we were told it was to pay for freeway improvements. Uh, isn’t that what our prior gasoline taxes were supposed to fund!? But they weren’t. They were siphoned off into the general fund, and into every empty bus traveling our roadways.

      The State will seize a bankrupt PG&E … then proceed to bankrupt every customer of the new CAP-&E. The ‘G’ is gone, because the global warming ghouls in our supermajority leftist State government are working hard to completely eliminate Natural Gas from the State.

      This State is squeezing the life out of every working man/woman in CA

  7. California imports about 25% of its daily electricity needs. My guess this is mostly during times when renewable energy is dead. With the upcoming nuke shutdown this no doubt will go higher. What are they going to do if outside sources have issues?

    Probably the saving grace is that due to cost and supply disruption businesses will expedite their exit from the state. As with most things, feedback mechanisms will ultimately come into play and balance it all out. What a mess.

    What is great is there have been articles on WUWT about all this for years and here we are. This reminds me of a show about New Orleans before Katrina where a guy had a 20’ pole in the French Quarter, stood it up and said this is where the water levels will be if the levees breach. Bingo.

    • There is one of those poles in a hotel lobby in Almere, Holland. Built on what used to be the Zuyder Zee. The scale is height of the water, in days, after the dykes break.

      The difference is, those dykes, built after the floods and failures of 1953, do not break

    • My former company installed over 185 Natural gas fired large gas turbine generator packages along the California border in the neighboring states. The California Governor at the time Gerry Moonbeam was quoted that while California’s emissions from power production were flat lining the neighboring states were all increasing in emissions. So that power is transmitted over LONG high tension power lines for major loses before it is used by the PG&E customers. There is also a cross state border tariff added to this external power to make it more expensive. So just think if some of these generator units were situated closer to the end users then these massive power outages could have been managed more efficiently and some of the towns and small cities could have island-ed themselves and still have been able to provide service.

      As to the power lines causing the wild fires the biggest reason for this to happen is NOT aging infrastructure but probably from tree strikes. The over regulation of the right of way clearing process in California has made it virtually impossible to properly maintain the clearances on the power line right of ways. Trees grow and hit power lines with a spectacular result but try and explain that to an anti-tree cutting greener.

      • Sorry. Your last paragraph is FACTUALLY incorrect. PG&E’s aging and poorly maintained equipment started the recent Kincaide fire and THREE fires in my little town of Lafayette a week ago. Exploding transformers and downed lines … with no trees, limbs, or outside agents. It’s ALL on PG&E … as was the Paradise FIRE. Hence, the PG&E Bankruptcy to $$$$$PAY$$$$$ for their negligent homicides and loss of property.

        Do you not read the news?

        The State of CA Legislature, the CPUC and a host of “Green” Concerns have diverted PG&E from their primary mission of delivering CHEAP, Plentiful, and SAFE power to N.CA. And PG&E was “proud” of their “First Latinex” CEO … who literally BURNED DOWN the company … and escaped with a $6M golden parachute. Our culture has completely degenerated into FRAUD and incompetence at the highest levels of governance and corporations.

        • While sympathetic with you situation my own view is that his last paragraph is, in fact, correct.

          When I looked at the at the actual causes of fires involving PG&E electrical equipment I noticed a fair number involved fires started when a car hit a local power line or when close proximity tree debris hit the lines. These fires likely would not have started if California had maintained adequate line clearance. The same goes for the occasional transformer failure. (For documentation search the legal submissions supplied to the courts handling these issues – I don’t have the links… so sorry about that).

          That said, when California’s wind speeds are in the in the 65-75 mph range any ignition-capable sparks resulting from any electrical system failure can travel between a quarter mile to a full mile. So, without good land practices in place, your not going to minimize those types of fires no matter how well you maintain your equipment or transmission right of way.

          Furthermore, you can expect some damage to any large scale transmission system any time wind speeds hit the 50-60 mph range. Even in the 40-50 mph range one can expect broken tree limbs and veering cars. So, I am not in favor of blaming PG&E for not being able to cope with what’s essentially the kind of damage you should expect even with well maintained lines.

          While emotions are high, and I can understand that, however it doesn’t matter to Mother Nature. Physics is physics and there is no such thing as a completely bullet proof transmission system.

  8. Let me get this straight. The government, news media, and public clamor for defense against the bogeyman (CO2) and PG&E responds. They spend resources and focus in this whimsical fight even attempting to meet demands that cannot be met on the non production of CO2 while providing power to their customers. Reality of not maintaining their power grid against the threat of poorly managed forests happens and they are to blame on all counts. The government, news media and public shout aloud how they were right and need to be further in charge.

  9. “keeping customers’ rates low”

    When are they going to let their customers know? We pay about the highest cost for electricity in the country. The lowest ‘lifeline’ rate only applies to less than 10 kwh per day and is still over 0.22 per KWH. Use too much and it quickly climbs to over 0.30 per KWH.

    • Our electricity comes from large dams on the Columbia River in Washington State. [Thanks to the previous generation.] The Bonneville Power Administration distributes this, to us through our “public utility district” (PUD), that distributes locally and sets the fees. There is a locally elected board of commissioners (3 people; 6 year terms).
      Rates are adjusted as needed. New rates, monthly, will soon be:
      SCHEDULE 1004 – Residential and Farm Service Single phase at available secondary voltages, normally 120/240. Facilities Charge … $22.50/month
      Usage Charge………………… $.0950/kWh

      These are just slightly higher than the past year’s rates.

      Last week, with high wind, a fallen tree, and a broken pole, our power went off. Came back on in just under 3 hours.

      • Yep, that is the luxury of not being under the thumb of the California Public Utilities Commission and the California legislature.

  10. This is what the numnuts get investing in wind-
    https://anero.id/energy/wind-energy/2019/october
    along with the solar duck curve and nothing at night. So they can take over the grid and make all sorts of claims and point the finger at capitalism but it simply won’t work and that will become increasingly obvious. Let them nationalize and run the power grid if they reckon they have the answers and the sooner the better. It’s only their looney prescriptions that will bring them undone so own all the responsibility climate changers.

  11. Well, that clearly marks an end to the old saying, “go west young man, go west!” I guess we might say the whole state, has gone west after reading this.
    State run utilities, what could possibly go wrong?

  12. Why is Capitalism so viciously singling out CA for punishment?
    Either Capitalism is “discriminating ” against CA, or CA has bad government policies.
    WOW you have to be pretty dumb to continue to vote for these idiots!
    How clueless is the average CA voter?
    And that is a brutal condemnation of their public education system.
    And a warning to the rest of the world.

    • The problem is collusion between the Democrats and an MSM whose goal is to wildly misinforms the public by hiding their malfeasance and incompetence and as a result the public makes bad choices at the polls. This effect is not limited to California and is rabidly expanding to the rest of the country. Misinformed voters are the bane of free market capitalism and the MSM is doing whatever it can to misinform whoever will listen.

      • It’s not just misinformation, it’s the deliberate indoctrination of the younger generations via the public schools and universities, who are being taught that socialism=good, capitalism (ie, free markets) = evil, even though every example of real socialism has been a disaster.

      • The problem is envy, and the politicians that stoke it. Even when people realize they are hurting themselves, they will continue to demand the confiscation of other people’s wealth.

    • Russ, Commifornia public education system ranked 46th in the U.S. and falling fast I’d bet! The teacher’s unions and the public employees unions have been running the state gov. for years now and it is only going to get worse as brain-dead Commifornians vote for socialism to save them from the horrors of excess CO2 pollution! You know, like higher crop yields and the greening of marginal growth areas.

      • Here is the one thing these knuckleheads don’t want voters to think about:
        We owe everything that makes modern life possible to “suppliers competing for customers”. It is what creates innovation, efficiencies, and rewards the best run companies by pruning poorly run companies out of the competition for customers.
        Capitalism is a poor term to describe what is special about the free market. It is the freedom to freely enter markets, and exit markets by suppliers of goods and services. The freedom to create something of value, and sell it at a profit, is what separates us from our ancestors of the distant past. And it is all that separates us from the despotic governments of most of the Third World.
        Competition for customers is what creates the incentive to provide a better value to that customer, than your competitor will. When there is no competition, you have a captive market for customers. It will not be long before those customers are getting less value for their money, and the single provider of the market is making excuses for why. And you can be sure those excuses are not going to include a hint of the real problem.

    • I don’t believe there will be a light to turn off…LAT today had a front page above the fold piece proclaiming they have gotten rid of coal, and is NG next? Fun times. Stock up on candles…

  13. [emphasis added] CPUC’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA) argues against maintenance and safety expenditures to keep rates low for customers, according to an application PG&E made to CPUC in 2012 to increase rates. PG&E noted in the document that ORA’s other priorities are making it difficult to maintain current infrastructure.

    Ummm… “low rates?”

    So. What’s the future? Much higher rates. Much higher insurance costs. Much more regulation to exacerbate those two costs.

  14. Soooo the fascist socialist California Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for The State to ‘take over’ PG&E, now that they’ve run it into the ground via over regulation? Just like the Venezuelan Socialist government did to their oil and energy industries…..
    What could go wrong????

    • You may want to keep your generator out of sight. It won’t be long be before the Governor declares private generators “uncontrolled emissions sources” and seeks to ban or over-regulate them.

      • I don’t keep the generator(s) I don’t own right next to the gun(s) I don’t own . I am concerned that the gas automobile(s) I won’t be allowed to own will be harder to not hide.

  15. The rational solution is to decrease the fuel load by commercial harvesting more trees for lumber. But given the green hysteria in California, the best achievable solution may be to harvest trees, convert them to wood pellets, and burn them in lieu of coal (as the Brits do).

    • Heh… given wood contains substances that poison the catalyst on the SCR’s used reduce NOx on the generating systems… the net result would either be increased NOx emissions and more smog or more down time and higher cost due to the need for more frequent catalyst replacement.

  16. In about 20 years there will be the super wealthy, super poor working class and the poor on depending on State government. Google along with other silicon valley will move all but the top brass of of the State. That will leave military and private ship yards. Farming and ranchers will die off. Their fields and open land will “Grow Wind and Solar Machinery maintain by the “Wonder Men and Women” (definition needed: When you drive by you’ll see nine standing around watching the one person working and wonder why.)

  17. That’s not even counting their failure to follow good forestry practices of allowing natural and controlled burns to reduce the undergrowth that fuels the severity of these fires. They claim that this is to protect forest species naively ignoring that in “nature”, when lightning causes one of these fires there would be no people putting them out. Nature will be fine following established forest management knowledge.

  18. Climate change is a convenient excuse to not accept responsibility.

    Unfortunately if the voters accept this excuse then nothing will change. I always say that the people get the government they deserve. If the majority is not smart enough to see through the fake excuses the government gives then nothing will improve.

  19. Californians should stop complaining about little burn-offs involving a charred 77,758 acres, 1,860 acres or 9,412 acres, in their State and check out the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria, Australia which burnt 2,000,000 hectares or 4,900,000 acres in January 1939, killing 71 people.

  20. If you want to see what a Californian utility will be like under full government control, it doesn’t take too long an attention span to figure it out. See ‘Oroville Dam Spillway Disaster’.

  21. I’m sure I’m out of loop here, and probably off base, but here goes my half-pfennig on this:

    Let us consider two changes to what has happened over the past years, starting with (number one) good land/forestry management, which should have included thinning, fuel removal, controlled/prescribed burns, and other basic land management. If I’m not mistaken, does this not involve or include the State Forestry Service, and the national governmental agencies, who often take the lead in determining major aspects of land management?

    And, number two, suppose the money spent on fighting mythical ‘climate change’ had been invested in replacing overhead power lines with underground conduit(s), as I see was proposed some time ago? Are not the underground power connections more robust, and able to handle weather events better? Yes, as a geologist I understand California has some tectonic issues; this is why you study an area where underground utilities are proposed, and install mitigation measures.

    Again, if this is all old hat, please understand that I’m relaying something I thought I heard a long time ago. I seek correction and/or updating,

    Vlad

    • re: “And, number two, suppose the money spent on fighting mythical ‘climate change’ had been invested in replacing overhead power lines with underground conduit(s), ”

      Impractical. Suggest you audit a course or two in this technical subject at your local uni OR find the equiv on YT.

  22. In 2002, I went to my first energy conference in California, where newly appointed Public Utility Commissioner President Mike Peevey was guest speaker.

    After listening to his speech, I understood just how complex energy in CA was: PUC, CEC, CAIR, California Natural Resource Agency and CA State Government were all involved. The difficulties of doing energy in CA became obvious to me, so I asked Mike if there was any chance of California making their energy and utility business any less complex.

    The whole room laughed including Mike and then a lawyer, lobbyist, or accountant said: “There goes our revenue stream.

    This is a long way of saying California has many groups to blame, besides PGE.

  23. Hey people, before you use Seattle City Light as an example of low electricity rates from state-owned utilities check on sources of electricity. The northwet US has traditionally had much hydro-electric power. (Has one nuclear plant in south central WA, had some coal-fired generation near Centralia, and has an NG-fired plant at Sumas near the Canadian border.

    That plant was built to use NG from the big pipes coming from NE BC, which also supplied NG for heating to areas of the US. The Sumas plant may have been affected a year ago by failure of one of the two big pipes and reduced pressure in the other that in hindsight is too close to the other. A reminder of vulnerability of supply routes. I don’t know if NG from new fields such as the Baaken is now piped into NW WA.

    BC has much electric power generation, especially from the Peace River in NE BC, with more coming as the ‘Site C’ dam is being built. In recent decades it has profitted from selling power into the US, using its storage dams to give it flexibility of timing of delivery – and sometimes buying coal-generated power from Alberta at low rates. Unfortunately supplying to the US put it in the sights of politicians and lawyers in big wrangles about price and supply in California.

    BC’s rates are low because of that hydro power, though I have not dug into how the dams were paid for, it is a state agency. About a tenth of Anthony’s marginal rate in Chico.

    And note that Seattle City Light got conned by someone claiming to be of North American Indian ancestry – not the brightest company at the time (poor CEO).

    • Rather than provide interesting anecdotes, provide actual rates and reliability comparisons. For example, provide the rates and reliability of city owned and operated Seattle City Light compared with for profit PSE rates and reliability in Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond which are very close to Seattle. This is where the rubber hits the road so to speak.

      Compare the rates and reliability between city owned and run LADWP and for profit PG&E in San Francisco or for profit SDGE.

      I’m surprised that Anthony Watts hasn’t made these comparisons since I believe he lives in California.

  24. re: “Rolling Blackouts”

    HWGA.

    NOT rolling blackouts. CA was _not_ short on generation assets.

    Do you really know what a rolling blackout is, and WHY it is implemented?

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