California isn’t equipped to handle the emerging hotter, drier climate. That includes its electric grid.
This past week, utility company PG&E shut off power to some 172,000 households, forcing people to bear triple-digit temperatures without air conditioning. It mirrors choices the utility made last year in an attempt to stave off electric infrastructure sparking fires, something that happened in the 2018 wildfire season from hell with deadly consequences. The state has also seen rolling blackouts this year in the midst of record-setting heat waves.
The grid, as it exists, is simply not sustainable. Blackouts put people in harm’s way, whether its cutting them off from access to critical wildfire alerts or reducing access to air conditioning and life-saving medical devices like respirators or medicine that needs to be kept cold. Simply accepting that electricity and fires can’t co-exist isn’t an option, though. But PG&E and other utilities across the West as well as communities themselves have steps available right now to to get their infrastructure up-to-date with the more fiery present and future.
First, we have to understand how we got here. While the climate has made forests more flammable, the infrastructure there has often provided the spark to ignite them. Downed PG&E wires caused at least 1,500 fires over the course of six years, including the deadly Camp Fire of 2018.
“PG&E has done so little to maintain or replace power lines that need work, which is part of why they’re so volatile,” said Jessica Tovar, energy democracy organizer at Local Clean Energy Alliance.
The Camp Fire, which basically destroyed the entire town of Paradise and surrounding communities, led PG&E to declare bankruptcy. The utility faced huge financial liability for the death and destruction it caused. To reduce fire risks (and exposure to more lawsuits), the utility has taken to intentionally cutting households’ and businesses’ power off. Last year, PG&E shut off power to millions of Californians.
These blackouts may help prevent some from fires from igniting, but at the aforementioned cost to Californians of losing access to air conditioning and other necessities. The power outages this year have created particularly acute conditions as the state suffers under a dense layer of smoke from wildfires running wild up and down the West Coast.
“With the smoke, it’s so hard to breathe, and it’s making me feel sick. So I have a box fan and an air filter, which helps a lot with breathing, with the headaches” said Tovar, who is based in the Bay Area. “If my power were go out right now with these shutoffs, I wouldn’t be able to run my box fan and filter, and those are the only tools I have right now that help me to feel better.”
There are ways PG&E could make its existing grid more fire-safe. Hiding power lines underground and away from flammable vegetation is perhaps the best available strategy. Last year, the utility promised to bury 200 miles of transmission lines. But that’s a tiny fraction of the company’s 81,000 miles of overhead lines. At $3 million per mile, burying them all would also be wildly expensive. Buried lines are also vulnerable to damage from floods and earthquakes and harder to access for repairs or alterations.
“If there is a component failure on a portion of a line that has been buried it can take much longer to locate and fix,” Eric Fournier, said research director at the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Alternatively, if there is a need for expanded capacity on such a line then this can become a much more costly issue to address.”
Another possible strategy is to outfit power lines with temperature or wind sensors. These could monitor environmental conditions to alert authorities about potential fire risks. But Fournier says these sensor alerts may not help very much in practice.
“Many long distance transmission lines traverse vast expanses of unpopulated terrain making it difficult to rapidly respond to a fire, even if the timing and location of its ignition are immediately known,” he said.
Other sensors could detect if a power line is falling in order to de-energize it before it hits the ground. But Fournier said that ultimately, these technologies are also liable to fail.
“Technological approaches to risk prevention are all fallible,” he said. “When you are talking about such a large scale network as the electric power grid and the potentially huge number of components that would need to be protected, even if the probability of each individual sensor failing is small, these probabilities will compound in non-trivial ways at the system level.”
Moving toward using fewer transmission lines for energy could be a way to lower fire and blackout risks. One way to do this is to expand California’s use of batteries to store energy. Currently, France’s grid operator is moving toward this kind of system. California has already made strides on the storage front: The state brought the world’s biggest battery online last month amid planned power outages. Expanding this capacity further could reduce the state’s need for long distance power lines. Ketan Joshi, a climate and energy analyst, said in an email that this approach isn’t impervious to failure, but it could lower the risk of widespread outages.
Expanding California’s use of microgrids, locally controlled power systems which produce and distribute energy and can also store it, could also help the state become less reliant on long transmission lines that pipe power to many communities from hundreds of miles away. Since these grids can run separately from the massive PG&E electrical system, they can shelter communities from blackouts—and provide cost benefits, too.
“Microgrids also make sense for communities from a cost perspective. They’d mean we don’t have to depend on expensive power line infrastructure, and that’s good, because on top of it being volatile, it’s expensive,” Tovar said. “We’re paying for the infrastructure it takes to have energy brought to the places where we where we use it, but with microgrids, we could cut out that cost and create energy islands, or energy bubbles you could call them, that are more resilient.”
Though it would be technically possible to completely eliminate California’s use of power lines and have all homes powered by locally sourced energy, Joshi said that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
“The range of places where we demand electricity—apartment blocks, industry, railways, bus charging stations, electric vehicle charging…it’d be a big challenge,” he said. It’s not clear when this would be possible, but he said likely not for decades to come.
What is clear, though, is that however the grid is updated, California (like everywhere else) must move away from fossil-based energy sources. Fossil fuels release the greenhouse gases that are driving the hot, dry conditions. Though PG&E uses far more renewable energy than most other utilities across the country, it still relies on some natural gas. Reducing their and other utilities’ reliance on gas, coal, and other fossil fuels would help reduce the long-term risks of more catastrophic fire weather in the first place.
The transition to a relatively fireproof and climate-friendly grid won’t be easy, and it’s further complicated by PG&E’s fiduciary obligation to its shareholders. So far, PG&E hasn’t done a great job at instilling confidence in Californians that it will make the changes needed. State-ordered reports found that in 2012, the utility company diverted more than $120 million in funds allocated for safety measures like burying power lines, and instead used the money for other purposes, including profit for stockholders and bonuses for executives.
“The only way you can have a stake in a corporate, monopoly utility like PG&E is to be a shareholder,” Tovar said. “If you’re not a shareholder, they’re not accountable to you.”
Tovar’s organization is pushing to expand the state’s existing Community Choice Aggregation program, which allows local governments to take over the job of buying electricity for their residents, bargaining for better rates and pushing for cleaner energy sourcing. The group is also working with other California grassroots environmental organizations on the Reclaim Our Power campaign, pushing for the state to purchase PG&E to make it a publicly owned utility and thereby eliminate the conflict of interest between shareholders and public safety that currently exists.
“Instead of paying to just fix all this expensive infrastructure that the monopoly utilities have imposed on our communities, we should learn by our mistakes and start working on the solutions that we needed yesterday. That’s clean power, that’s resilient power,” said Tovar. “But changing the grid, making it safer, isn’t just about how the energy gets produced, because to change all that, we’re also going to have to change who’s in control of it.”