Once again, California is up in flames. It’s beginning to look like a recurring seasonal phenomena much like hurricane or tornado season in the Southeast and Midwest. The Camp Fire is currently the deadliest wildfire in California’s recorded history at 81 deaths (with ~870 persons still missing). We can only pray that another massive fire doesn’t break that record in the next 12 months. To the south, the Woolsey Fire moved from the 101 Freeway to Pacific Coast Highway in a mere seven hours, a blistering pace enabled by howling Santa Ana winds, which seem to be occurring more regularly these days. In fact, it was the speed and intensity of these fires which literally forced residents to run for their lives. We are in uncharted territory and something has to give.
The climate change recipe for disaster is simple: extended drought weakens and dries our forests and vegetation, and rapid shifts in temperature along with atmospheric pressure breed high winds. All that’s needed is a spark from somewhere. This is the only element in this recipe that is under our control. The power lines of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) have already been identified as an ignition source of the Camp Fire, and investors are fleeing the utility company as the liability stormfront builds on the horizon. In Los Angeles, it appears that power lines connected to a substation at the radioactively contaminated Santa Susana Field Lab likely started the Woolsey Fire.
So, what does this mean for energy consumers? The LA Times reports that PG&E decided against de-energizing the lines around Paradise, CA. just before the Camp Fire ignited, a fact which will surely advance arguments to preemptively shut down transmission lines during high wind conditions. As you can see from the map below, the energy distribution system for Santa Barbara, infamous for “sundowner” winds that presage Santa Ana wind conditions, is surrounded by extreme “Tier 2” fire hazardous terrain (shown in red). In circumstances similar to last year’s Thomas Fire, there is a much higher probability that the entire system could be preemptively shut down to avoid sparking another massive wildfire.
Who can argue against this logic? If electrical lines are predominantly responsible for starting fires during windswept conditions, it sounds like the only prudent path to take. How will affected communities function without grid power during these situations? It is clear that only local renewable energy generation and storage will keep the lights on, our homes safe, and our communities functioning.
At the state level, CPUC Chair, Michael J. Picker says he won’t let PG&E go bankrupt. In addition, there is talk of “clean-up” legislation that will essentially make SB 901, the wildfire legislation, retroactive to 2018 as opposed to going into effect on January 1, 2019, to provide the utilities protection against this year’s crop of catastrophe. More privatization of profits and socialization of losses, as the ratepayer takes it up the backside one more time.
I say let the utilities go bankrupt and allocate available resources to replace hazardous transmission lines with distributed technologies that bring resilience to fire-prone regions. Why should we use precious funds to bail them out yet again AND pay for new transmission lines that will start this disastrous cycle all over again? If a power line causes a fire, it shouldn’t be there, period. A fire damaged line should stay down and be replaced by distributed resources in affected downline communities. Furthermore, any community rebuilt from the ashes, or located in a high fire hazard zone like Santa Barbara, should be a prime candidate for microgrid development. We can build based on proven designs like that of Stone Edge Farm, a highly resilient microgrid model, that utilizes a variety of storage technologies to address short to extended energy needs.
Our aging energy infrastructure is at an inflection point. We must take care and act prudently to ensure that new energy resources protect the community, not burn it down.