Is California Better Prepared for the 2020 Wildfire Season?

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A mix of dry conditions and strong winds are conspiring to make this year’s wildfire season in California especially threatening, and utilities and regulators are working to rapidly implement new resilience programs and ready microgrids to mitigate fire risk and prevent prolonged outages.

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The first few months of the year saw record low rainfall across the state — the Bay Area in particular saw no precipitation in February for the first time since the height of the Civil War. Many areas have received less than 5% of their typical average rainfall, and sustained drought conditions have turned large swaths of forest to ready tinder.

Already this year, CalFire is reporting more than 4,500 fires, 17 fires larger than 1,000 acres, and in excess of 40,000 total acres burned — roughly 75% more incidents and acreage than at this time in 2019, and almost double the state’s average for midyear. More than 50 new blazes have been reported in just the last week, showing no signs of slowing down, with little in the way of  sustained rains predicted.

California regulators estimate that electrical utility equipment and power lines cause about 10% of wildfires in the state each year. The 2018 Camp Fire was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in the state’s history. A nearly 100-year old, faulty transmission line caused the blaze which claimed at least 85 lives and left more than $16 billion in damages, the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year.

Since then, regulators and utilities have taken a number of steps to mitigate certain risk factors and better prepare themselves and the public. The recognition that many parts of the electric grid are aging and vulnerable, and the overwhelming financial liability borne by the state’s utilities that operate more than 250,000 miles of transmission and distribution infrastructure, have spurred rapid and sometimes dramatic measures.

Fire is a great teacher. And with all these lessons learned and preparations underway, will California be better prepared for the start of the 2020 wildfire season?

Preparations underway

The short answer is yes. At least as far as it concerns the state’s electricity network, California is better prepared than they were last year. 

The state’s investor owned utilities have had another year to coordinate and plan. They are enhancing current infrastructure while procuring new resilient energy resources, and are actively engaging local leaders and communities in mitigation plans. Each of these strategies is adding greater flexibility and resilience to the electric grid in real time, and giving utilities more ways to reduce the risk of sparking wildfires and preventing power outages.

Digging into all these different initiatives, regulations, and mitigation plans, it is apparent that microgrids and distributed energy resources are central to California’s strategy. On top of achieving regulatory mandates and legislative milestones, each of the utilities is undertaking their own initiatives related to microgrids. None is doing so more than Pacific Gas & Electric.

“As PG&E continues our enhanced and expanded efforts to reduce wildfire risks, we are also working to reduce the scope, duration and impact of future PSPS events. A key piece of this strategy is developing and deploying microgrids,” said PG&E CEO and president Andy Vesey in June.

Updates to PG&E strategy

At that time, PG&E and the other two large utilities had their wildfire mitigation plans approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, and they have since been swiftly executing on those strategies. When reached on July 17 by email, a PG&E spokesperson provided these updates regarding the utility’s 2020 microgrid initiatives. The utility:

  • Has completed work on 38 of 62 substations being upgraded to be microgrid-ready. On schedule to complete the rest by September 1
  • Is working with the community to create an alternative temporary microgrid plan, after one proposed substation initially proved to be not viable
  • Expects to finish four temporary community microgrids by the end of July, located in Shingletown, Pollock Pines, Georgetown, and Calistoga 
  • Expects to have ten such community microgrids operational by the end of the year
  • Is working with community leaders, providing greater access to necessary data, and determining where community microgrids may be most beneficial for future deployments
  • Has already reserved more than 450 MW of mobile generation, primarily fueled by diesel. Also able to run on renewable fuels made from hydrogenated vegetable oils in order to reduce emissions

That last element — the diesel generators —  raised some eyebrows among a number of constituencies in June, pitting microgrid resilience benefits against environmental concerns.  Critics pointed out the irony of running diesel generators to address the impacts of wildfires that were undoubtedly made more likely and damaging thanks to fossil fuel induced climate change. It is equally valid to note that running a diesel generator for a few hours is far more emissions friendly than a 1,000 acre wildfire.

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But emissions aside, these mobile generators form the lynchpin of the utility’s preparations for this year. The upgrades to 62 substations, being made so that they can operate as microgrids in the event of prolonged outages, are worthless unless they have an external or rerouted power source available to them. Hospitals, emergency services, and other critical facilities needing backup power can easily plug into them without significant technical overhauls. And temporary, portable microgrids and utility-run community resource centers can be quickly set up.

The utility will be able to easily relocate these portable generators to where they are needed in preparation for blackouts and other events. Far from shiny and new, diesel generators are reliable and proven in the field, and they have enough capacity to power a small community for a short period of time.

All of this added flexibility and new capabilities will mean that utilities will be better prepared to respond to grid disruptions, come what may. Upgraded infrastructure throughout the system to be microgrid ready also has benefits beyond wildfire season. The microgrids may also be used to avoid power disruptions from a range of other events, from earthquakes to routine equipment maintenance and upgrades.

This intense focus by all stakeholders on blackouts and forced outages may seem tangential to wildfires at first, after all, the main threat of a fire is the swift and intense damage as flames burn through communities. But as of last year, forced outages and de-energizing the electric grid became much more commonplace in the state as a way to prevent sparking wildfires in the first place. 

Taking power from the people
non-wires alternatives

 Photo by Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com

2019 was an incredibly difficult year for utilities in California. The Camp Fire and other significant blazes the year before loomed large over public opinion and regulatory action, and the clock was ticking as the state faced the next wildfire season only a few months away. 

Government officials and utility leaders needed to take swift and decisive action to limit wildfire risks where possible and shore up the support of a weary public.

Among other steps, state legislators passed AB 1054 & SB 1339. They created a utility bill fee for a wildfire fund to offset losses and still maintain the grid if utilities meet safety requirements Regulators translated those laws into practice and ramped up oversight of utility preventive measures

Utilities complied by adding oversight, ramping up precautionary measures like vegetation management and equipment inspections, and began exploring new ways to make the grid more adaptable and resilient alongside regulators.

Despite these efforts, questions still remained about utilities’ readiness for another dry and windy wildfire season. In addition to being found liable for the Camp Fire (and more than $30 billion total in settlements from 2017-2018 wildfires), PG&E in particular was under immense scrutiny. 

California law is much stricter than other states in that a public utility can be held ‘strictly liable,’ even if they adhere to all rules and safety regulations. Utilities have lobbied heavily to change this rule over the past few years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom accused PG&E leaders of choosing ‘corporate greed’ over public safety and proper infrastructure investment. Stories about their eventual bankruptcy and even the possibility of the city of San Francisco defecting from PG&E were regularly making national headlines. The utility was under a lot of pressure and the start of wildfire season was only a few months away. 

Strategies to encourage microgrids

Among the laws, regulations, and mitigation strategies put in place there were a number of long-term solutions like tariff restructuring to encourage resilient microgrids and additional funding for future repairs and upkeep, but those actions wouldn’t have any substantive effect in 2019.

Most of the more immediate solutions being adopted were only expanded versions of business-as-usual like enhanced vegetation management, just being implemented, or still in process and being debated by stakeholders.

There was no magic bullet policy, hoard of cash, or shiny new technology being churned out that could effectively solve the risks faced by Californians without taking drastic measures. Failure to adapt sufficiently over time had left the state’s utilities with few immediate options, and attempting to play catch up with what should have been a slow multi-year evolution was not fruitful.

To not take more drastic steps in a tinderbox year was to cast fate to the wind, and would have effectively guaranteed additional wildfires would be sparked by utility equipment, causing untold damages and an unpredictable threat to the public. 

Prepare for extended outages

The pressure was on for utilities  to deliver electricity safely and affordably while managing the fallout from an unprecedented year of wildfires and preparing for another.

Due to the predictable risk and immense liability of operating an electric grid in dry and windy conditions, in 2019 the utilities and regulators settled on vastly expanding the practice of ‘de-energizing’ the grid during unsafe conditions to avoid sparking more disastrous fires. 

Dubbed ‘public safety power shutoffs’ (PSPS), utilities would turn off high-risk portions of the grid during risky weather to eliminate the possibility of their equipment being the source. The thinking goes, if portions of the grid cannot operate safely under these conditions then it must be shut down to protect the public. 

Historically, intentional blackouts by utilities were quite rare and limited to more rural areas, but now they were being considered for more denser parts of the state that would impact tens of thousands of customers at a time. 

Each utility has its own policies and procedures in place, and determines unilaterally when these power shutoffs occur based on forecasted wind and drought conditions. The utility then alerts regulators after the incident and provides a report on their determination and execution.

In 2018, there were seven shutoffs by the three major utilities in California, none close to major cities. In 2017 there were only five, all by San Diego Gas & Electric and in the less populous east end of the county.

‘This did not go well’
California

Image by Scott Richardson/Shutterstock.com

In 2019, the use of power shutoffs was greatly expanded, and the scope, duration, and who would be impacted also changed dramatically. There were 15 deenergization events impacting millions of customers, and four more incidents where utilities alerted officials but ultimately decided not to move forward.

The power shutoffs were not popular, and their execution was widely criticized by government leaders and the public.

The afternoon of October 8, PG&E was monitoring portions of 34 counties where high winds were expected, and by the end of the evening they would shut off power to nearly one million customers. Leading up to this historic event, the company’s communications systems were failing and their website went down, making it difficult to inform the public when and where outages may occur. 

By the end of the year, PG&E would shut off power to residents six more times over 23 days, each under increasing scrutiny from regulators and the public. By November lawsuits and investigations were underway, and the escalating rhetoric from the Governor’s office was being joined by a chorus of government leaders seeking answers and better solutions in the future.

How microgrids will combat power shutoffs in 2020

The primary goal of efforts taken by utilities and government leaders since the 2019 wildfire season is to reduce the scope, frequency, and duration of the power shutoffs. 

Microgrids will create new flexibility options for utilities during the 2020 wildfire season. With a microgrid in place, a utility can more easily shut down a high-risk power line feeding a community while not adversely impacting residents or critical services. Microgrids also respond almost instantaneously so customers are unaware of any switch in their power source. Utilities can safely shut down power with much less warning to customers, knowing that microgrid systems throughout the grid will kick on right away.

Beyond these direct actions, utilities are also working with regulators to update tariffs and rate structures to maximize social resiliency benefits, meaning that developers and technology providers will be able to find new opportunities as well. Streamlined interconnection procedures, better data sharing, and removal of caps for energy storage technologies under net metering will also help simplify some of the burdensome process of initiating a microgrid project.

While microgrids have a proven track record in the field, for utilities they are still new territory in many ways. So California may be better prepared than last year, but the 2020 wildfire season looms ahead as a test.

Matt Roberts is director of director of strategic growth & government affairs for Microgrid Knowledge.

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