In the past three years, hugely destructive forest fires in California have caused billions of dollars worth of damage to homes and businesses, even wiping out the entire town of Paradise last year. Years of prolonged drought have turned much of the vegetation in the state into tinder which ignites easily when it comes in contact with downed power lines.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which serves most to the area around San Francisco, has admitted that its transmission lines have been responsible for many of those fires, especially when high winds buffet the electrical grid. That admission is the reason why the company declared bankruptcy earlier this year, acknowledging that paying for the damage it caused could exceed the entire value of the company.
PG&E is supposed to maintain the corridors its transmission lines pass through, trimming tree limbs that hang over the wires and clearing the brush from beneath them, but in recent years it has failed to do so diligently. The company says there are 27,000 miles of wires that need such attention, but as of the first of October, it had completed the necessary maintenance along only 7,000 of those miles.
When windy conditions were forecast earlier this month, the company attempted to limit the danger of more forest fires by shutting off the electricity to up to 1 million residential and business customers, in some cases for as long as a week. The blackouts caused another kind of firestorm — a flood of complaints from angry customers.
The CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, Bill Johnson, appeared before the California Public Utilities Commission last week and told the regulators the state will likely see blackouts for another 10 years, according to a report by NPR. He told the commissioners the company is trying to reduce the chances of wildfires by trimming more trees and using technology to target smaller areas of the grid when fire dangers require power outages. But it could take 10 years before such outages are “really ratcheted down significantly.”
Johnson insists the outages, which he calls Public Safety Power Shutoff events, were necessary to insure safety in the face of seasonally high winds that can damage power lines and lead to wildfires. “We recognize the hardship that the recent PSPS event caused for millions of people and want to continue working with all key shareholders to lessen this burden going forward,” Johnson wrote in a letter to the PUC prior to the hearing. “At the same time, we ask our customers, their families, and our local and state leaders to keep in mind that statistic that matters most: there were no catastrophic wildfires.”
So what should we learn from this? Several things. One is that people insist on living in places where perhaps they shouldn’t. That applies not only to those who cherish the view from a wooded hillside but also to those who wish to live in coastal areas that are subject to damage from storms and rising sea levels. PG&E may have been remiss in maintaining its transmission wires, but as a public utility it has an obligation to provide electricity to all communities, even if they are situated in areas prone to forest fires.
Second, there could be no clearer signal that the utility grid as presently constituted is an antiquated concept that could use a serious rethink. A big part of that reassessment might involve more distributed renewables, more rooftop solar systems, and more microgrids with battery storage instead of the current model that puts most generating facilities in the center with distribution spokes radiating out in all directions.
Third, as a warming planet continues to experience massive drought conditions, the old ways of doing things just won’t work any more and new ways that account for a changing environment will need to be found.
One thing that seems likely is that demand for rooftop solar and behind the meter storage will skyrocket as more homeowners and small business proprietors experience the shock of waking up to find their power has been shut off. More demand should lead to lower prices, which could benefit us all.