As wildfires rage throughout the Western United States, they destroy everything in their path and imperil all in their range — life, property, health, natural habitat. Add light and power to that list.
“Flames knocked out transmission lines and generators from the Sierra Nevada to the San Diego backcountry,” The Los Angeles Times reported in September, adding that utilities begged residents to conserve electricity during the hottest times of day because of stresses on the system.
An Oak Ridge National Laboratory study last year detailed the devastation, obvious and not, that wildfires can unleash on the grid: destruction of power lines, towers and poles. “The transmission capacity of a line can be affected by the heat, smoke, and particulate matter from a fire even if there is no actual damage to the physical structure,” it emphasized.
The fires highlight the dangers of climate change. They also underscore the vulnerability of power grids to natural disasters and weather extremes, both of which will increase in scope and frequency because of our warming planet.
“Climate hazards and extreme weather affect all components of the electric grid system, from generation to end use,” the Oak Ridge study warned, adding that these systems, decades old, weren’t designed to handle new environmental realities.
Bigger and more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, blizzards, floods and drought all call for more renewable energy, but more distributed power as well. These natural disasters “impose the need for another type of flexibility, and that is flexibility in the grid to make it more resilient,” said Florian Mayr, a Berlin-based partner at Apricum— The Cleantech Advisory.
Old power sources, which produce C02, exacerbate climate change. The current power grid — with centralized power generation and distribution — makes the severity of the problem that much worse. Utilities are dependent on electricity coming from limited sources, often over long distances, with equipment that is either inadequate or unreliable in a crisis.
“There’s going to be an increased desire to build out a more distributed grid particularly in terms of power generation, because if lines go down or if there’s something happening on the transmission and distribution side, a distributed grid is more resilient because you don’t have to get power from A to B, the power is everywhere,” said Eric Wanless, director of technology and innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, where he focuses on the power industry.
In August, consumers discovered just how tenuous the situation can be. California utilities Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison were forced to initiate rolling blackouts for four days because extreme heat spiked demand, while supply was unexpectedly curtailed. The utilities assumed they could import power from Nevada and Arizona. However, those states needed the power for themselves as they were experiencing record heat as well.
For PG&E, the state’s largest utility, the linkages between cuts to the supply of power and fires are becoming all-too-common. In 2017, a downed transmission line triggered the worst wildfire in California’s history, killing more than 80 and destroying the town of Paradise. Last year, the utility cut the electricity to millions of customers without warning, fearing strong winds could blow down trees, which in turn could down power lines or other equipment.
Getting the grid to be more weather-responsive is one side of the equation. Reducing carbon dioxide levels in power production is the other. Boosting renewable energy sources is on the rise, although not as quickly as planners believe necessary.
“First on our priority is de-carbonizing the electric grid,” said Rick Rys, who specializes in energy management as a senior consultant with ARC Advisory Group. “We haven’t moved particularly fast compared to how fast we need to go.”