Are Autumn Firestorms and Power Shut Downs The New Norm For California?

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California is under siege; our fall warm winds have turned into a vehicle for disaster. If you watch the national news, it appears that the end is near, and California will soon be the charred remains of what was once a vibrant and innovative region with natural beauty and diversity. To some, this might be a welcome development, as many people harbor animosity towards the golden state and its influence. As the birthplace of everything from the beatniks and hippies to dot comers and the sharing economy, many consider California as a symbol of a culture out of control. To others, this is why they choose to live here.

Regardless of your thoughts on the culture and people of California, recent events remind us that no matter where you live and what you believe, the climate is changing and the effects can be devastating. The impacts of climate change are not limited to California. Extreme hurricanes are destroying island paradises, biblical scale rainstorms are flooding entire states, intense winter storms cover whole cities in a thick layer of ice, and violent firestorms are wiping out entire communities. It all sounds like something out of science fiction thriller. But this is not a movie. This is our reality. The fact that experts have been predicting these catastrophes for years is no comfort.

Warm winds in October are not a new thing in California. In the 30 some odd years I have lived here, they have been a signal that winter is near. Typically, the weather starts to change from summer to fall, evenings get chilly, and the leaves begin to turn. Then along comes the warm winds known as the Santa Anna’s in Southern California and as the Diablo’s in the North. I have always enjoyed them, as they give us a few more days of warm summer-like weather before the season’s change.

That changed for me on Sunday, October 8th of 2017. We went to bed, aware the winds were likely to be gusty that evening. We were awakened from a deep sleep in the middle of the night by a phone call. It was our friend calling to make sure we were OK and to check on her daughter, who was spending the night. Within minutes of that call, I learned that someone we knew had lost their home to fire. Unfortunately, this would be one of several. 

When I went outside, the sky was aglow with an eerie orange light from the hills. It seemed to be everywhere, flames were surrounding us on three out of four sides of the valley. Many of my neighbors were standing in the street in their pajamas, trying to take in what was happening.

The following day we woke up to the smell of smoke. We learned that a devastating firestorm had ripped through the City of Santa Rosa overnight, destroying hundreds of buildings, and there were fatalities. Meanwhile, fires were burning in the hills surrounding our city of Sonoma. Thick clouds of yellow smoke filled the sky in every direction.

After some contemplation, we decided our best option was to evacuate. Our primary concern was our children breathing the smoke, coupled with a fear of being trapped in a valley. The fires had shut down roads in three directions out of town. We photographed our house and belongings, packed what we could and loaded the kids and pets into two cars and left, not knowing what the future held. A week later, we were able to return, relieved to find out we still had a home. Others were not so fortunate. This event had a profound effect on us and thousands of other people. The impacts are hard to appreciate unless you have been there. Nothing makes you question your future more than deciding what to take and what to leave as you flee a firestorm.

Flash forward a couple of years, and we find ourselves in a very similar situation. It is October, almost exactly two years from the Santa Rosa firestorms. The warm winds are on their way, and there is tension in the air. The difference this year is that we are aware of the potential. To avoid repeating the past, PG&E, our utility, is planning a PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutdown). Shutting down certain areas during high wind events makes sense. Investigators have determined that power lines and other failed PG&E equipment caused several of the 2017 fires.

The problem was the way in which PG&E approached the situation. Power was shut down on a Wednesday on a perfectly calm day. The logic behind which areas were shut down and where the power stayed on seemed haphazard and poorly thought out. The next day the gusts picked up, but they were not that unusual. By Thursday evening, the winds were severe. I guarantee you that the power shut off prevented several fires.

Unfortunately, one area did ignite near the town of Geyserville, in a very rugged and inaccessible mountain region. The 80 miles per hour plus winds soon spread the fire to the Southwest, where it destroyed multiple buildings. As I write this, the Kincade fire is far from contained and is burning thousands of acres of land. The advance notice and power shut-offs saved lives, but the net effect is the same. Wildfires burning out of control, started by failed electrical distribution equipment causing billions of dollars in damage to property and lost productivity. Some argue this is the new normal, whatever that means. The problem is that while we know what is creating this situation, how to make it different is not so evident. One thing I can assure you: for PG&E, the situation is not good.

If PG&E shuts down the power to prevent a wildfire, people are upset by the inconvenience. The impact is real with losses from missed days of work, and businesses closed due to no electricity, not to mention rotten food due to lack of refrigeration. If PG&E doesn’t shut off the power during these high wind events, people die. If they shut off the power, they get sued for other losses. It’s pretty much a no-win situation for the utility.

As a result, the utility’s future is uncertain. PG&E has already filed bankruptcy due to the insurance claims from the 2017 firestorms. There will be new claims due to the Kincade fire. Some blame corporate greed, suggesting PG&E has not done its part to clear vegetation around power lines and has failed to repair and update equipment. I would argue that even if they had a perfect record on those fronts, we would likely be in the same position.

The winds from the recent events are historic. Many regions in Northern California experienced sustained winds of over 50 miles per hour with gusts reaching 90. Instruments at the top of a mountain near the Kincade fire recorded wind speeds of over 100. These are not the typical Diablo or Santa Anna’s. These are hurricane strength winds over dry land. When you combine them with hills full of dry fuel, including millions of dead trees from four-plus years of drought and old electrical transmission infrastructure, it’s amazing the entire state is not ablaze.

The real question is, how do we prevent this from happening in the future? Some suggest burying the power lines, which sounds good until you get the bill. I heard a figure the other day that PG&E has over 125,000 miles of power lines in California. Burring power lines underground is prohibitively expensive. If PG&E buried all of its power lines, you would need a mortgage to pay your utility bills, and it would take years to achieve. Underground electrical distribution over long distances is not a practical option.

Others suggest that site-produced electricity and batteries are the answer. This might be true if you can afford the equipment. If you have the correct exposure and solar panels plus some form of storage, you no longer need a utility to meet your energy needs. The problem is solar panels are only viable if you have enough rooftop or open space to meet your demands, something that is a real challenge in multi-story buildings. Batteries large enough to store enough excess energy for times when the sun isn’t shining are costly and use minerals and chemicals that come with environmental concerns.

Microgrids are another strategy that has potential. Community shared power with storage, could be an answer for many applications. Think about a small town sharing solar panels and energy storage to amortize the costs. It’s a viable option and makes a ton of sense in the right situation. Microgrids are getting some traction on college campuses and business parks, but haven’t reached the mainstream at this point.

There are a wide variety of other energy storage solutions in development. An example is micro-hydro, where you pump water uphill during the day with solar power and release it at night so it can flow through a generator. Another solution is to pump compressed air into abandoned oil wells during the day with solar power and release it through generators at night to make electricity. A Chinese company has created a storage solution the uses cinder blocks and a crane. During the day the solar power is used to lift the blocks several stories high in the air. At night the blocks are released and spin a generator, effectively storing the solar energy created during the day and providing it later at night after the sun goes down.

One thing that is clear: there is no silver bullet or single right answer to solve this crisis. It will take an all options approach to deal with energy delivery and consumption in the future. I do believe that efficiency has a significant role to play. Using less energy and being aware of waste is a proven and cost-effective option.

I will make one prediction–the days of centralized generation and one-way flow of electricity from production to end-user are over. The future will rely on a multitude of distributed solutions to meet our energy needs.

If there is a silver lining to the smoke and fires raging in California, it is that people are aware of, and finally talking about, electricity and energy use. Much of the conversation revolves around complaining about PG&E and the fires and smoke. But people are also discussing the value of solar panels, energy storage solutions like the Tesla power wall, and the idea of purchasing a small gas generator to meet their needs during power outages.

The first step in any problem is to acknowledge and discuss the issue. There is no lack of conversation in California right now. Everyone seems to be talking about electricity, PG&E, and climate change. Perhaps this is the first step towards an effective solution.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California