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Opinion

Power lines are still starting California wildfires. We can’t wait three years for a fix

Power lines fire illustration
Many of the most recent — and worst — fires have been started by downed or sparking power lines.
(Edmon de Haro / For The Times)

California faces a crisis that requires quick and effective action.

The destructive and dangerous fires that have always been part of life in the state are becoming even more so. Many of the most recent — and worst — of those fires have been started by downed or sparking power lines. Yet the best solution the state and the utility companies have come up with to prevent that is to shut down power preemptively to hundreds of thousands of households, often in a chaotic and disruptive manner. In October, as fire season began, the rollout of these “public safety power shut-offs” was a disaster.

This process has to be fixed. The damage to the state’s economy, not to mention the hardship, confusion and fear felt by millions of residents and businesses forced to endure days, even a week, without power, requires action.

It seems that Gov. Gavin Newsom understands the urgency. Instead of just complaining about the utilities’ lack of investment in safety measures or their failure to implement the shut-offs effectively, he has convened an “energy team,” headed by an “energy czar,” Ana Matosantos, charged with envisioning a new path for the state’s electrical grid. He also appointed a new president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Marybel Batjer, who, three months into the job, has already shown more regulatory teeth than her recent predecessors.

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Both Matosantos and Batjer have vowed that next year won’t be as bad as this year. Here are some relatively short-term steps that can be taken to help.

First, the power lines must be made safer. Not in three or more years, as envisioned in the wildfire mitigation plans that the state’s electrical utilities were required to draw up this year. But starting this year.

Doing this will require some political will. But it is not impossible. We know how power lines start fires: Tree limbs are blown by high winds into overhead wires. Either they spark (the cause of the Getty fire) or they are knocked to the ground and set fire. In other cases, lines strung too close to each other slap together in high winds, causing them to arc and send sparks raining down on trees and bushes (the cause of the Thomas fire).

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A good first step would be for the PUC, which regulates the state’s for-profit power companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, to order an immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas. The goal would be to identify potentially weak spots and come up with a prioritized list of fast fixes.

To be sure, this will not be cheap. But ratepayers and taxpayers are already on the hook for the billions of dollars needed to fund electrical safety upgrades outlined in the state’s wildfire mitigation plans and to cover insurance claims for property destroyed in fires ignited by power lines, to say nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars that they spend on state and local fire agencies each year to fight wildfires and protect homes and lives. Smart investments now could save money down the road.

Also, we have to implement our power shut-offs better. What happened in October was an unforgivable mess.

And it was not hard to see it coming. When lawmakers gave their blessing to expanded outages as a way to prevent power lines from setting fires, they didn’t require utilities to commit to any sort of shut-off criteria, such as a minimum wind speed that would have to be reached before the power could be cut. The only requirement was that power shut-offs be used as a last resort. The utilities officials said don’t worry, we know what we are doing. Trust us to figure out how to do it.

The problem with that became apparent almost as soon as PG&E and Edison, the state’s two largest investor-owned power companies, started warning the millions of people in their service areas that they might experience a blackout. Maybe. We don’t know when. Or if. But be prepared. Just in case.
Despite having months to get ready for that moment, neither PG&E or Edison adequately prepared for the inevitable onslaught of customers logging on or calling up to find out if they would be among those losing power. And then when the power was turned off, it seemed to be done randomly and not terribly effectively. For example, despite high winds, some power lines continued to be energized in risky areas. Some of them malfunctioned and are now suspected of setting the Kincade fire in Northern California and the Saddleridge, Getty and Maria fires in the Los Angeles area.

This doesn’t have to happen again. We know this because one investor-owned utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, has been employing preventive shut-offs for years as a way to avoid starting fires without leaving huge numbers of its 1.4 million customers in the dark for long periods of time. Indeed, during the red flag warnings between Oct. 9 and 11, PG&E turned off the power to some 730,000 customers, affecting 1.8 million people in 38 counties, while SDG&E shut off the power of only about 400 of its customers. This was because after two devastating wildfire seasons in the 2000s, the utility had wisely invested in devices and technology to better predict dangerous conditions and to section off specific lines so effectively that it could shut down power to the windy end of one street and keep the lights on at the other end.

At the very least, regulators at the PUC must come up with minimum shut-off criteria. That could involve wind levels or the issuance of a red flag warning by the state or some other standard. But it can’t be left to the individual utilities alone to decide when a shut-off is appropriate.

And communications must be more narrowly targeted. If warnings become too common or go out too broadly, there’s a danger that people will ignore them and fail to prepare for when the lights really do go out.

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Here’s another suggestion: If a power shut-off is determined to have been unjustified by the PUC, or larger in scale than necessary, then utilities should pay hefty fines that they can’t pass on to ratepayers.

Finally, let’s get moving to develop safe backup power sources. When the power was turned off to millions of Californians in October, untold numbers of backup diesel generators kicked on, for those Californians lucky or prepared enough to have one on hand. But though those gas-burning, carbon-belching generators may have kept the food from spoiling during the outages, they presented their own problems. For one thing, they are fire hazards themselves, and in fact they set several small fires in Northern California during the October power outages. They also emit greenhouse gases that foul the air, and they can kill people when used in improperly vented areas.

The best way of discouraging the use of diesel generators is to put a rush on something that the state has already been planning for: building small-scale local power generators fed by renewable sources such as the sun or wind, coupled with storage batteries that can be switched on when the grid is turned off.

Just a decade or so ago, deploying these types of backup generators in any meaningful way was still an unaffordable dream. But in the last few years battery storage technology has made huge leaps in both affordability and capacity.

It wouldn’t be a bad investment of taxpayer funds for the state to allocate some of its current budget surplus to buying backup solar power generating systems and battery storage systems, creating mini-microgrids in centrally located places, such as schools in high-fire risk communities, that could act as community power centers during public safety power shut-offs.

This isn’t the definitive list of things that need to be done to help California survive its inevitable fires, just a few short-term things that can reasonably be accomplished by the time peak fire season begins in 2020.


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