California Wildfires and Power Outages Signal Long Road Ahead, But Climate Ambition Sets the Right Course

November 1, 2019 | 12:10 pm
Forest Service Photo by Kari Greer
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

In California, this fall marked the third consecutive year of catastrophic blazes ripping across the state. It marked the first year in which those blazes were accompanied by the widescale deployment of multi-day, multi-city pre-emptive power outages.

The fires have been disastrous and deadly, laying ruin to homes and livelihoods, forcing people to flee and sending vast swaths of smoke far beyond where the flames themselves laid siege.

But it’s this year’s convergence of another round of disastrous fires alongside multi-million person blackouts that has made something in the public consciousness snap, and that is the focus here. This coupling has rendered a new awareness of the magnitude of the challenge at hand. Not with a change in science, not with a change in facts, but with the forceful deliverance of a clarity of vision that can only come from recognizing that the only way out is through.

Climate change is a ruthless red pen, underlining chronic underinvestment, circling short-term planning, slashing away at careless norms, until here, now, all that remains is high-risk infrastructure in a high-risk world, a rickety grid in a tinderbox with nowhere left to let sparking infrastructure hide.

And as a result, Californians are now simultaneously dealing with massive fires on the one hand and massive power shutoffs on the other.

The inclination to retrench is acute, with no immediate full fixes at hand. But these fires and these outages are a trumpeting call to act. To plan for—and minimize—their impacts, to invest in modern and climate-smart infrastructure, and most of all, to forcefully, fully commit to the very clean energy transition that will better the future and ease the interim costs.

How did California get here?

The power shutoffs sweeping across California, leaving millions in the dark, some for days on end, are the consequence of two separate but overlapping tracks. First, the state of the climate, and second, the state of the power grid.

The first is bad, and the second is worse.

In Northern California the Diablo winds and in Southern California the Santa Ana winds, combined with drought conditions, are exacerbating fire risks. Add to that a hotter than historical average summer this year in California and the fire risks grow. In general, the trend toward hotter, drier conditions across the state are contributing to more severe and longer, practically year-round, fire seasons. Increasing development within the wildland-urban interface and a past history of fire suppression and inadequate forest management have only worsened that risk.

But for fires to take off, they first need a spark. Sometimes it’s human-caused, sometimes it’s lightning—and sometimes, increasingly worryingly, it’s the grid.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is the largest investor-owned utility in the state. It oversees over 100,000 circuit miles of distribution, or local, lines, and nearly 18,500 circuit miles of transmission, or long-distance, lines. And that sprawling grid is not alright—outdated and rusting, incapable of handling the moment at hand.

Last year, the devastating Camp Fire was responsible for the deaths of 85 people and $16.5 billion in costs—and it was sparked by a worn-out component on PG&E’s system. In the aftermath, PG&E conducted inspections of all of its towers, lines, and substations, and though it has addressed the most dire repairs, there are a lot of needs still left. The utility has suggested it could take another 10 years to get through all the necessary maintenance, upgrade, and vegetation work that remains.

Which means now, this: deciding between leaving a brittle grid turned on in high-fire conditions and risk sparking a blaze, or deploying public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), where lines are deenergized and millions are thrust into dark until the risk of a fire has passed.

It did not have to be like this.

This situation is a result of PG&E’s mismanagement of, chronic underinvestment in, and poor planning around its electricity system. The risks they are facing are well known, and other utilities have embarked on efforts to minimize similar such exposures. There are legitimate reasons to question PG&E’s investment decisions over time, as well as their elevation of financial interests over public benefits during ongoing bankruptcy proceedings.

But still: PG&E did not get here on its own. Despite California’s success in rapidly and cost-effectively driving renewable energy adoption; despite the state’s long-term commitment to carbon reduction goals; despite the 2016 passage of AB 2800, which reckons with the need to design, build, and maintain infrastructure with climate impacts in mind—despite all this, there remains willful denial by too many public and private entities of the actual, right-now, real-world impacts of climate change to everyday infrastructure, and the subsequent need to act. Insufficient utility commission oversight and ongoing prioritization of short-sighted demands have further compounded the problem and enabled the utility to continue down its misguided course.

Where does the state go from here?

PG&E is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, toppling under the weight of massive wildfire liabilities from equipment-caused 2017 and 2018 blazes. This has led to calls for entirely novel reformations of the utility, from state-owned, to municipally divvied, to smaller private shares. The debate is complicated, and there are pros and cons to each.

But no matter how the utility comes out of bankruptcy, fire prevention and response plans must be improved, and the power grid still needs to be fixed. These fixes must be climate-safe. They will take money, but they are non-negotiable. For hospitals, police, first responders; for streetlights, pumping, business operations; for ATMs, credit cards, communications—for all of this, and so much more, the focus must stay on the fix: we are not moving away from relying on the power grid anytime soon.

Though full implementation will take time, near-term efforts can immediately work to lessen the scale and scope of inevitable PSPS events. Interventions include a mix of grid hardening and grid smartening, increasing the durability of equipment on the one hand and the resiliency and flexibility of the system on the other. Selective undergrounding of power lines—a very expensive measure—can possibly help in limited high-risk areas.

The fact remains, however, that for the foreseeable future PSPS events are unlikely to fully stop, and they’re enormously disruptive when they occur. Which introduces a second critical need: simultaneously boosting resilience from the bottom up, to lessen the impact of PSPS and other outage events.

Here, the search is for resources deployed at the local level. Diesel generators have long served in this role, but they are heavily polluting, demand ongoing access to shutoff-affected fuel supplies, and are all too prone to failure given irregular use.

Solar coupled with batteries, on the other hand, present a tremendous and growing opportunity. Together, solar plus storage can be leveraged to create a microgrid, able to generate and distribute electricity independent of the broader grid. Which means that when the broader grid goes out, the power can still stay on for a home or business, or a string of homes and businesses all linked as one. Critically, these resources can also help clean up and lower the costs of operating the grid year-round—not just during outage events.

Costs are coming down fast and uptake has been surging, but still these systems remain too costly for some, meaning that dedicated oversight and targeted funding efforts are required to ensure backup power is fully in reach for those least able to weather disruption costs. And, to ensure that with community as lead, at least critical services and some community buildings are made electricity resilient to start, to ensure access to an electrified island when the broader grid goes down.

But remember, this is a two-pronged electricity resilience approach, and advances at the local level do not, cannot excuse the urgent and critical need for bolstering the broader network of distribution and transmission lines.

Further, none of these solutions suggest in any way a need to reject the state’s clear-eyed and forward-looking commitment to clean energy. The power grid is faltering without regard for the provenance of the electrons on the wires. This is not a zero-sum game, and moving forward, the state must remain steadfast in its obligation to tackle the twin challenges of climate mitigation and climate adaptation together as one—addressing just one at the cost of the other will ensure failing to successfully tackle both.

Do these events change the nature of the climate fight?

California is not facing easy choices here. Nobody wants to be the one left standing when the bill finally comes due. But there’s no room left to run.

Rapidly escalating climate impacts have stripped all pretense and laid bare: a grid on the precipice, unable to meet the needs of a new day following decades of ill-considered planning, mismanagement, and neglect.

If there was any question left, the convergence of catastrophic fires and millions-spanning blackouts have made clear that there is simply no option to ignore it anymore.

Except: that’s exactly the call that’s erupted from backwards-looking legislators and entrenched interests in search of a new angle to undercut and claw back the state’s dedicated pivot from fossil fuels.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This story, this challenge, this state-wide horror at hand, is a clarion call to act. Clean energy is the solution, not the problem. In cutting emissions and in boosting resilience, climate ambition is the only tenable path ahead, not a lofty distraction.