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How to Fireproof the California Power Grid

Power lines are seen against a burning landscape during the Creek Fire in Fresno County, California.

Power lines are seen against a burning landscape during the Creek Fire in Fresno County, California.
photo:: Josh Edelson ((Getty Images)

California is not prepared for the emerging hotter, drier climate. This also includes the power grid.

Last week the utility company PG&E switched off the power supply around 172,000 householdsand forces people to endure three-digit temperatures without air conditioning. It is reflected Decisions the utility made over the past year in an attempt to fend off electrical infrastructures that start fires, which happened in the 2018 forest fire season from Hell with fatal consequences. The state has also seen rolling blackouts this year in the midst of recordSet heat waves.

The existing network is simply not sustainable. Power outages put people at risk, regardless of whether they are excluded from access to critical forest fire warnings or whether access to air conditioning and life-saving medical equipment such as respirators or medicines that need to be kept cold is restricted. Just accepting that electricity and fire cannot coexist is not Option however. But PG&E and other utilities throughout the west as well as communities themselves now have steps available to to update their infrastructure with the more fiery present and future.

First we have to understand how we got here. While the climate has made the forests more combustible, the infrastructure there has often given the spark to ignite them. Caused failed PG&E wires at least 1,500 fires over the course of six years, including the fatal Campfire from 2018.

“PG&E has done so little to maintain or replace power lines that is why they are so volatile,” said Jessica Tovar, organizer of energy democracy at the Local Clean Energy Alliance.

T.The campfire that basically destroyed this whole city of paradise and the surrounding communities caused PG&E to file for bankruptcy. The utility Faced with enormous financial liability for the death and destruction it caused. To reduce fire risk (and expose more lawsuits), the utility deliberately turned off power to households and businesses. Last year PG & E. switch off Power to millions of Californians.

These blackouts can help keep some fires from igniting, but at the above cost for Californians to lose access to air conditioning and other necessities. The power outages this year created particularly acute conditions The state suffers from a thick layer of smoke from forest fires that run wildly up and down the west coast.

“With the smoke, it’s so hard to breathe and it makes me sick. So I have a box fan and an air filter that helps a lot with breathing and headaches, ”said Tovar, who is based in the Bay Area. “If my power went out now with these shutdowns, I wouldn’t be able to run my box fan and filter. These are the only tools that are currently helping me feel better.”

There are ways PG&E can make its existing network more fire-proof. Hiding power lines underground and from combustible vegetation is perhaps the best strategy available. Last year did the utility promised Bury 200 miles of transmission lines. But that’s a tiny fraction of the company’s 81,000 miles of overhead lines. At the $ 3 million per mileBurying them all would also be incredibly expensive. Buried lines are too prone to damage from floods and earthquakes and more difficult to access for repairs or changes.

“When part of a buried line has a component failure, it can take much longer to locate and fix,” said Eric Fournier, director of research at the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Alternatively, if extra capacity is required on such a line, it can become a much more costly problem.”

Another possible strategy is to equip power lines with it temperature or wind Sensors. These could monitor the surrounding conditions to alert the authorities to possible fire risks. According to Fournier, these sensor warnings may not help much in practice.

“Many long-distance transmission lines traverse large areas of uninhabited land, making it difficult to react quickly to a fire, even if the time and place of ignition are known immediately,” he said.

Other sensors could detect if a power line is falling to deactivate it before it hits the ground. However, Fournier said these technologies are also prone to failure ultimately.

“Technological approaches to risk prevention are all fallible,” he said. “When you talk about a network as large as the power grid and the potentially large number of components that would need to be protected, even if the likelihood of any individual sensor failing is small, those probabilities become non-trivial ways at the system level. “

Using fewer transmission lines for power could be one way to reduce the risk of fire and power outages. One way to do this is to expand the use of batteries in California for storing energy. France is currently the network operator move towards that kind of system. California has already made advances in storage: T.he says brought the largest battery in the world Online last month amid planned blackouts. Further expansion of this capacity could reduce the state’s need for long distance calls Power lines. Ketan Joshi, a climate and energy analyst, said in an email that this approach isn’t immune to failure, but it could reduce the risk of widespread outages.

The expansion of the use of microgrids in California, locally controlled power systems that can produce and distribute and also store energy, could also help reduce the need for the state to rely on long transmission lines that carry electricity hundreds of miles away to many communities. Since these grids can be operated separately from the massive PG&E power grid, they can protect communities from power outages– and also offer cost advantages.

“Microgrids also make sense for municipalities for reasons of cost. They would mean we don’t have to rely on expensive power line infrastructure, and that’s a good thing because it’s not only volatile but also expensive, ”said Tovar. “We pay for the infrastructure necessary to bring energy to the places where we use it. With microgrids we could reduce these costs and create energy islands or energy bubbles that could be called more resilient. “

While it would be technically possible to completely cut off California’s use of power lines and provide all homes with local power, Joshi said it likely won’t happen anytime soon.

“The variety of places where we need electricity – apartment blocks, industry, railways, bus charging stations, electric vehicle charging … that would be a major challenge,” he said. It’s not clear when this would be possible, but he said probably not for decades to come.

It is clear, however, that California (like everywhere else), while the grid is being updated, must move away from fossil fuel sources. Fossil fuels release the greenhouse gases that power the hot, dry conditions. Although PG&E used much more Renewable energies than most other energy suppliers across the country still rely on natural gas. Reducing your and other utilities’ reliance on gas, coal and other fossil fuels would primarily help reduce the long-term risks of more catastrophic fire weather.

The transition to a relatively fireproof and climate-friendly network will not be easy and will be further complicated by PG & E’s fiduciary duty to its shareholders. So far, PG&E has not done a great job of instilling confidence in the Californians that they will make the changes needed. State-ordered reports found that in 2012 the utility company diverted more than $ 120 million in funds Assigned for security measures such as burying power lines and used instead for other purposes including earnings for shareholders and bonuses for executives.

“The only way to get a stake in a monopoly like PG&E is by being a shareholder,” said Tovar. “If you are not a shareholder, they are not accountable to you.”

The Tovar organization is pushing to expand the state’s existing Community Choice Aggregation program, which allows local governments to buy electricity for their residents, negotiate better prices and push for cleaner energy purchases. The group is also partnering with other California environmental organizations on the Reclaim Our Power campaign, urging the state to buy PG&E to make it a public utility, eliminating the current conflict of interest between shareholders and public safety .

“Instead of paying to just repair the expensive infrastructure that monopoly utilities have placed on our communities, we should learn from our mistakes and work on the solutions we needed yesterday. That’s clean power, that’s resilient power, ”said Tovar. “But changing the grid to make it safer doesn’t just depend on how the energy is generated. To change all of that, we have to change who is in control.”

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