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The Power Is Off. Now What?

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Once again, California has been challenged by devasting and deadly wildfires ripping across the state. The Kincade fire raged out of control in Northern California, and multiple fires were burning in Southern California. All of the wildfires have one thing in common: plenty of dry fuel created by millions of dead trees after four years of drought.

This year, PG&E decided to try a new approach to minimize damages from these fierce firestorms fueled by dead trees and fanned by record-high winds. On October 9th, 2019, PG&E implemented its first Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) to try and mitigate the effects of high winds in Northern California. The PSPS is a new tactic in response to the deadly fires that have been started by failed electrical equipment owned by utility. The idea is pretty simple: turn off or de-energize the power in high-risk areas to prevent wildfires from failed electrical equipment. However, the impacts of this strategy are far-reaching and unpredictable.

The problem is complicated, and the solution is far from perfect. The main challenge is deciding which lines to de-energize and for how long. It gets even more complicated when you learn a little bit about how the electrical grid in California works. To simplify, there are two kinds of power lines on the electrical grid. Transmission lines use very high voltage and move electrons over long distances. Distribution lines step down the high voltage power and distribute it to end-users. The problem with the PSPS approach is that you often end up cutting the power to end-users who are not really in a high-risk zone.

Consider, for example, what happens if the transmission lines traverse a mountain range to deliver power from a generation source to a large city on the other side of the mountain. As the weather changes and the winds pick up, the line is de-energized to prevent failed equipment such as broken power lines or blown transformers. When the transmission line is shut off, it prevents the damage on the route of the transmission line. The problem is the distribution network at the end of the line. The end-users on this line include businesses and households that depend on electricity. The electrical grid is not a neat and tidy or well-defined network of wires. In reality, the grid is more like a giant messy spider web with branches that extend in multiple directions as new buildings or cities are built and developed, and added to the infrastructure.

The age of the grid doesn’t help. In many parts of California, the electrical infrastructure is nearly 100 years old. Maintenance and upkeep of the electrical grid infrastructure is an enormous and expensive task. Many are criticizing PG&E, the largest utility in California, for placing shareholder profits over equipment maintenance and customer safety. Time will tell how much corporate greed has played into recent events. PG&E has already filed bankruptcy due to the insurance claims and lawsuits from the 2017 Santa Rosa firestorms. In 2018, the entire town of Paradise was wiped from the map by fires started by failed electrical equipment.

At first glance, the idea of shutting off power for a few days to save lives and property sounds like a small sacrifice by some to save the lives and property of others. In reality, the loss of something we seldom consider and take for granted has far-reaching impacts. The first round of PSPS by PG&E in early October was well-publicized ahead of time. The advanced notice gave folks time to prepare or evacuate prior to the predicted high wind event. Even so, I can tell you that the night before the shut-off, people were acting as though it was the end of the world. Tempers flared in the long lines at gas stations as the supplies dwindled. The lack of adequate quantities of essential items such as batteries, flashlights, and ice made some stores a battleground as customers fought over the last few remaining things. Unfortunately, it brought the worst out in some people.  I witnessed a near fistfight when one person cut off another to get gas for their car.

It amazes me how stressful the uncertainty of not have electricity can be. In my home, the real concern was refrigeration. We were fine without lights as we had plenty of candles and flashlights. I had hot water and heat from our fireplace, and we cooked on a camp stove or bar-b-que.

The lack of electricity made keeping food fresh the primary challenge. Ice became a precious commodity, and finding new supplies was difficult.  My wife and I went to over five stores the night before the event to find enough ice to fill a large cooler. We were not the only ones having issues with refrigeration. Grocery stores were moving their refrigerated goods into refrigeration tractor-trailers parked behind their stores. Restaurants were buying dry ice and renting generators to prevent the loss of perishables. After the first PSPS, a local grocery store manager told me that it took over 400 person-hours to move items from the refrigerators to the trailers and back for just one store.

The real stress is from the uncertainty. In the grand scheme of things, losing power for a couple of days is not that big of a deal. The problem is, a PSPS can last anywhere from a day or two to as long as a week. Preparing for a day or two without power is pretty easy, but extend that to a week, and the challenge grows exponentially. The ripple effects are enormous. The cost estimates from the October 9th PSPS, which lasted three days, are estimated to be $15 billion. Everywhere you turn, there were losses. Grocery stores lost food, the business had to close due to lack of power, working parents had to pay for childcare when their children’s schools shut down. This list goes on.

The real question is, did it work? There is no doubt in my mind that this event spared property and lives. But the results were not 100% effective. High winds are fanning fires across the state. The Kincade fire in Northern California destroyed over one hundred buildings, charred tens of thousands of acres, and forced the largest fire evacuation in California history. Evidence suggests that the fire started with failed electrical equipment. The irony is the lines adjacent to the fire were de-energized, and the likely source was just outside of the de-energized zone.

The emotional impacts are challenging to measure but palpable. Conversations everywhere center on the effects of these events. I have heard stories about friends staying at their friend’s house to use their shower. Evacuees are packing their cars with belongings and fleeing to unknown and uncertain destinations. Stores are running out of generators as folks try to find a way to ride out the potential of multiple PSPS events in the future.

For me, it has been a challenge at work and at home. We work remotely, mostly from our homes and occasionally from our Sacramento office. Working remotely means we rely on electricity and the internet to communicate. Each of us has faced the loss of internet service and or power in the past weeks. Mix that with spotty phone service and meeting deadlines is pretty challenging.

Wildfires are a part of living in California. Traditionally they have been isolated events that occurred in the mountains and foothills and were short-lived. Today they are affecting major metropolitan areas and last much longer due to the abundance of fuel from millions of dead trees combined with hurricane-force winds. These new extreme firestorms are not a problem that will be going away soon. PG&E and the PSPS is one attempt to mitigate the effects. It is a high-risk solution that depends on trying to predict future events. The impacts of shutting down power are significant and have long-lasting consequences. Get it right, and you look like a hero; make a mistake, and the lawsuits will follow. It’s pretty much a losing battle for PG&E, and the company’s future is uncertain.

The standard model of massive generation facilities pushing electrons to end-users will likely go the way of the dinosaurs. In many ways, the electrical distribution network is facing the changes that we saw in the communications industry twenty years ago. Remember when we all used landline phones? I suspect we are on the verge of a transformation in the way in which we produce and use energy in our home and business. Who knows what the future holds.

What are the solutions? First off, using less energy makes the most sense to me. Energy efficiency is about doing more with less. Reducing loads on the grid will go a long way towards solving the problem. Microgrids, self-generation, solar with battery storage, micro-hydro, and many other technologies can reduce reliance on long-distance transmission and thus the potential for fires too.

One thing I am sure of, this idea of shutting down the power during high wind events in selected regions to prevent wildfires is a band-aide and not a permanent solution. The costs are too high, and the ability to predict which lines to de-energize is an educated gamble at best. If there is a silver lining to the smoke and fires raging in California, it is that people are aware of and talking about electricity, and energy use. They say 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. What your thoughts? Email us at info@efficiencyfirstca.org.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California