California fires, electricity outages need not be “the new normal”

A dire, almost defeatist thread has been running through social media and other commentary around the California wildfires and the widespread, preemptive electricity outages across the state. The sense of urgency about catastrophic side effects of climate change is right on. And it is true that fixing our electric grid will be a long and mighty task.

But we do not —and should not — have to accept this as “the new normal.”

How we got here

We know that the changing climate is inextricably linked to the way we produce and use energy. Which means we need to rapidly transition away from the energy sources that are disproportionately warming the planet and use lower carbon forms of electricity.

And we know that the existing California electric grid is not suited to the task. It is a sprawling network of aging power lines that overlaps with a landscape that is drier and more vulnerable to wildfires than ever before. California is emerging from an historic decade-long drought, attributable to climate change. As a result, much of the acreage on fire is grassland and other new growth.

But recent studies show there are 147 million dead trees across California — the ideal tinder for wildfires. Most of them died either from drought or bark beetle infestation, both of which are directly attributable to climate change.

If we had to make the choice today, we’d avoid building the grid on such terrain. But today’s electric generation is located away from population centers, which means we need transmission and distribution wires to move the electricity to where we need it.

As a result, our utilities have had to shut off power in places that are at the greatest risk of fires. California has implemented several of these public safety power shutoffs this year, and while it is impossible to prove a negative, preliminary reports indicate that several additional fires might have occurred if not for the shutoffs. At the same time, harm to customers and the broader economy are almost impossible to measure.

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Decarbonizing the grid is imperative

Ironically, efforts to decarbonize or energy system will require even more investment in the grid, to support both future electricity needs (which are now met with fossil fuels), as well as the electrification of vehicles and so on. These goals are enshrined in the 2018 landmark law Senate Bill 100, which puts the state on track toward a 100% carbon neutral electric grid by 2045.

In order to reach the state’s decarbonization goals, California needs major new investment into our electric grid. And given the high potential of wildfires and the negative consequences of public shutoffs, a preliminary examination might suggest now is the exact wrong time to add more electric infrastructure (including new wires) to the grid — in essence that we should effectually hold off on decarbonizing our economy. This would be a huge mistake. We have to manage climate change and reliability risks in concert with one another. And we have to do it in a way that ensures all communities continue to have access to energy that’s affordable, reliable and clean.

Both of these things are entirely achievable and in some cases, already underway.

There are basic things we can do right now to limit wildfire risk. We need to increase the frequency of power line inspections, clear dead trees and brush and replace or repair aging towers that are at greater risk of falling down. The California legislature has already mandated many of these measures, both in critical legislation adopted both last year (Senate Bill 901) and earlier this year (Assembly Bill 1054).

We can also make the infrastructure safer and more robust. This too is already partially in the works. PG&E, for example, recently announced a plan to install 600 high-definition cameras to help spot and isolate problems, and reduce response time when a line is down. They have also started to build new weather stations every 20 miles that can provide more localized warnings when conditions for wildfires are at their worst.

Transforming the system

Longer term, we need to focus on creating a fundamentally cleaner, more resilient energy system. That will require investing in resilience solutions, such as microgrids, that pollute less and which can help keep the power on in case of an emergency.

Senate Bill 1339 — which passed last year — has already kick-started that process. It streamlines the utilities’ process to interconnect a microgrid and creates new financial incentives for installing them in high wildfire threat areas. These grids could be a critically important tool for helping to ease the costs of transforming our energy system. Our goal should be to make strategic investments that provide additional resilience and reliability into the grid without locking in polluting technologies.

What we absolutely can not do, is let up on our efforts to bring additional cleaner forms of energy to the electric grid. For example, installing a bunch of gas-fired backup generation would run counter to our clean energy goals, and expand the natural gas system at precisely the time we should be shrinking it since the volume of methane that pours from the state’s gas pipelines creates massive climate pollution and other health risks.

What’s more, two recent reports suggest that such expansion would prove extremely costly to the state’s ratepayers. A recent analysis by Gridworks, along with a study by the California Energy Commission both spotlight the growing cost of maintaining the state’s gas system. Taken together, the documents suggest customers who use the gas system in the name of “resilience” in times of power shutoffs will receive bills that are two to 10 times higher than present rates.

Essentially, continuing to depend on gas for reliability is the wrong choice for California’s energy customers; it will run counter to our affordability, clean and resilience agendas.

No shortcuts

There is no instant or immediate fix. But it is absolutely possible to build a safer, more resilient system that is both affordable and clean — and to make sure that all Californians benefit equitably.

The recent weeks have shown how critical it is to get this right. As we make our next set of investment choices, we need to make certain that we make wildfires and power shutoffs the exception, not the rule. The “new normal” should be a clean, affordable and reliable electric grid that everyone can access and rely upon.

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