wildfire and electric utility infrastructure

What should utilities do to reduce the risk of another deadly wildfire? This is a cause for debate that spilled into the news this year when utilities in some Western states caused outrage by announcing planned power outages in areas prone to wildfire. We believe that there are better solutions. Simply turning the power off when risk is high should be avoided whenever possible; utilities must consider cost-effective alternatives to prevent fire, equitably reduce risks, and aid impacted communities.

WILDFIRES AND THE COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE ARE INCREASING

During the last 30 years, the amount of land burned by wildfires has nearly doubled across the West, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

national academy of science

From 1985 to 2017, climate change was estimated to nearly double the acreage wildfires we might otherwise expect in normal conditions.

Warmer temperatures mean that summer is lasting longer and starting earlier, shrinking the window for precipitation and temperature conditions needed for snowfall. Recent research has shown that snowpack declined by 41% in the Colorado River Basin mountain ranges between 1982 and 2016.

Snowpack that accumulates throughout the winter melts during the spring and summer, providing the moisture that is needed to keep vegetation green and rivers flowing. But when snowpack melts faster and earlier due to warmer temperatures, the vegetation and rivers dry out, making conditions more susceptible to burning. All of this is compounded by the fact that summers are getting hotter.

The increasing severity and frequency of wildfires is already imposing significant and rising costs. All of the five costliest wildfires in U.S. history have happened since 2017. And the spark for the 2018 Camp Fire, the costliest wildfire in U.S. history, was caused by utility infrastructure.

ELECTRIC UTILITIES’ ROLE IN WILDFIRES & THE COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection confirmed that a failed, old electrical transmission pole owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had sparked the Camp Fire, which caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and killed 86 people. PG&E, is facing up to $30 billion in liability and has subsequently declared bankruptcy and is undergoing a massive restructuring.

The events of the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, including the Camp Fire, spurred Xcel Energy, Nevada Energy, PacifiCorp, and other utilities across the West to begin creating wildfire mitigation plans to reduce the risk that utility infrastructure might cause another catastrophic wildfire. The measures include replacing old poles, installing new technology in existing poles to respond more dynamically to high wildfire risk days, and even planned power outages to intentionally turn off electric power lines to eliminate the risk that they will fail and catch fire.

Proposals for planned outages in areas with high wildfire risks in California and Nevada have been controversial because customers always want reliable electricity. California has already experienced planned power outages, including a massive outage in October 2019 in Pacific Gas and Electric’s service territory, which left millions of customers in the dark for several days. Not only did these outages disrupt people’s lives, they are estimated to have caused at least $2.6 billion in economic losses.

Because utilities are regulated monopolies, their costly wildfire mitigation plans also impact ratepayers whose power isn’t disrupted. For example, Xcel Energy in Colorado proposed a wildfire mitigation plan that was expected to cost $238.3 million between 2019 and 2023.

REGULATORS’ ROLE IN WILDFIRES & THE COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Weighing the costs of utilities’ plans with the risks posed by wildfires requires a nuanced approach and careful consideration. As public utility commissions across the West evaluate utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans, several variables must be considered:

  • Wildfires, as well as other climate-driven natural disasters, will become more severe and more frequent as our planet continues to heat up.
  • Utility programs financed by ratepayers can help lessen the potential of catastrophic wildfires, but these costs are felt by all ratepayers, including low-income people for whom electricity bills already cause financial strain.
  • Planned power outages may be an effective last resort tactic to reduce the risk of wildfire risk, but they have significant social and economic impacts.
  • Inaction also results in added costs, as demonstrated by PG&E’s role in the 2018 Camp Fire. These costs are also borne by electric ratepayers, as well as investors.
  • Public utilities commissions’ responses to wildfire mitigation programs set precedents for how utilities will respond to addressing other risks related to climate change.

Instead of utilities unilaterally proposing wildfire mitigation programs, regulatory commissions should seek widespread input from stakeholders on community needs, concerns, and potential solutions. Non-utility experts and the communities impacted by wildfire mitigation plans need a voice at the table.

Where utilities can significantly reduce risk in a cost-effective manner, they should be allowed to do so. The financial and human costs of a catastrophic wildfire like the Camp Fire should be a warning that inaction also carries significant costs. The physical world is changing due to the climate crisis, and utilities need to respond accordingly.

Utilities’ wildfire mitigation plans shouldn’t be accepted at face value. Experts should scrutinize them carefully in order to determine which proposals really reduce risk. Regulatory commissions must consider what level of risk is acceptable and which steps are most cost-effective for utilities and their customers.

Finally, we need to build a more resilient electric system that reduces the need to shut off customers’ power and prepares them for when such outages do occur. The thinking behind the planned power outages is that if risk is extremely high, it’s better to de-energize power lines completely and eliminate the risk of a utility-sparked wildfire. But most people in the developed world consider a reliable supply of power to be an assumed right. For regions in high-risk areas, the planned power outages will disrupt livelihoods and impact schools, businesses, and households.

If utilities are considering planned power outages, they should provide backup power to communities at risk of wildfire. Microgrids powered by solar energy and battery storage can serve critical facilities, such as first responder services and hospitals, when grid-supplied power is not available.

All of these measures are more expensive for utilities. But as climate change continues to increase the risk of wildfires, the human and economic costs associated with those wildfires will continue to rise. Utilities must embrace long-term, creative solutions that serve the best interests of all affected communities.