Utilities are struggling to keep the lights on as fires, drought plague California

A customer buys groceries at La Tapatia Market during a power outage in Napa, California on Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The power grid in the west is being tested like never before in extreme weather events, including raging forest fires and severe droughts fueled by climate change.

Utility companies are struggling to respond. Californians were preventively disconnected from the electricity if there was a high risk of fire, while rolling power outages were introduced in the event of supply bottlenecks.

There is also the risk that an aging and poorly maintained infrastructure harbors it. PG&E filed for bankruptcy after the company’s equipment sparked multiple forest fires in recent years, including the 2018 campfire that killed more than 80 people and razed the town of Paradise, California.

“The environmental impact on utilities, given the aging infrastructure, plus more forest fires and more hurricanes and more pressures like this one, when there has been a systematic lack of investment in resilience and reliability, is catching up with you,” said Thomas Deitrich, CEO of Itron helping utility companies manage and analyze energy and water usage. “And you see that in some cases today with certain utilities.”

There are steps utility companies can take to become more resilient, including installing technology-enabled sensors for a more accurate snapshot of conditions around power lines. In addition, sophisticated forecasting can help utility companies understand their future electricity needs.

However, the necessary infrastructure updates are an expensive undertaking. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the power infrastructure investment gap is estimated at $ 208 billion by the end of the decade.

“Although the grid is really one big machine in one area where everything has to work together … that machine is made up of millions of parts,” said Steven Weissman, professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Staging all of this and getting all of these individual actors to do their part is a tremendous challenge,” said Weissman, a former administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission.

The power problems in California and the West took center stage this summer, but there are also problems in the US. The need to make electricity infrastructure more resilient across the country was at the heart of President Joe Biden’s spending proposals.

The latest version of the $ 550 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan provides for $ 73 billion in power infrastructure investment, which, according to the plan’s datasheet, is “the largest single investment in clean energy transmission in American history.”

Investments in network stability and reliability

A hotshot crew from Redding with a strike team from the LAFD works on the Dixie Fire near Taylorsville, California, USA, July 29, 2021.

David Swanson | Reuters

There are a number of short-term and long-term improvements that utility companies are implementing to better manage their systems.

One of the most important steps in making the network more resilient is increasing situational awareness – that is, understanding what’s going on on the network – said Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, the professional association for investing utilities.

This includes installing sensor arrays that provide granular snapshots of what is happening at any point in the system. Companies can monitor wind speeds and parched vegetation to understand the areas of greatest fire risk. Thanks to the improved situational awareness, network operators can also make decisions in almost real time about whether lines should be switched off if the conditions become too dangerous.

The environmental impact of utilities in the face of aging infrastructure … if there is a systematic lack of investment in resilience and reliability, it is catching up with you.

Thomas Deitrich

CEO at Itron

Residual current circuit breakers can also automatically interrupt the power supply so that no sparks occur in the event of a line break due to strong wind. Utilities also implement network segmentation so that as few people as possible are affected in the event of a power failure.

“These are investments that companies across the West are making to both gain better situational awareness and have more automated controls,” said Aaronson.

Weissman of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that separating the equipment from the vegetation is the most critical factor, and if this cannot be guaranteed, upgrades must be made to the infrastructure itself. The embattled PG&E said earlier this month it will be laying 10,000 miles of power lines underground in highly fire-prone areas. The announcement came after the company said its equipment could have triggered the Dixie Fire, which has burned more than 240,000 acres since July 13 and is still active.

Measures to reduce risk

Other infrastructure security enhancements include replacing wooden poles with steel ones and coating wires to reduce the risk of fire.

Erik Takayesu, vice president of asset strategy and planning for Southern California Edison, said the company has a 360-degree view of its infrastructure. In addition to using ground patrols, the company also uses drones and helicopters to take high-resolution images to detect even the smallest anomalies.

“We have had operational forest fire containment practices for years. But as the situation worsens with the risk of forest fires, we have reinforced our strategy to contain forest fires, ”he said. This year, the company, which serves around 15 million people in central, coastal and southern California, plans to spend around 20% of its budget on forest fire containment. This includes a team of meteorologists and fire science experts who constantly monitor the conditions.

“We’re seeing the effects of that [climate change] Now, and we know the effects will only get worse if we don’t get this under control, “Takayesu said.

Power infrastructure is ubiquitous and these changes are costly to implement. Investor-owned utility companies serve approximately 75% of all US customers. These companies must get regulatory approval before raising prices for consumers. While they are encouraged to invest in new capital infrastructure, there are incentives to under-spend on operations and maintenance.

“There is very much a relationship between the utility company and the utility commission,” said Deitrich of Itron. “They are trying to balance the prices for consumers and how much risk they have to take on the resilience and reliability of things.”

Supply side problems

Crashed power lines touch the ground on Camino Diablo Road in Lafayette, California, the United States, on Monday, October 28, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Utilities also face problems on the supply side of the equation as climate change increases temperatures and widespread drought reduces available hydropower. In contrast to public safety shutdowns, which occur due to safety risks, rolling blackouts are implemented when the network is not adequately supplied.

As early as this summer, the Californian independent system operator asked residents several times to save electricity in order to reduce unnecessary consumption when demand is expected to increase. One of these Flex notifications wasn’t issued until Wednesday, July 28th.

The state is the largest electricity importer in the country, according to the US Energy Information Administration. With record temperatures and severe drought across the west, some power outside of the states that California has traditionally relied on has been compromised. Record forest fires across the west this summer have also threatened key transmission lines between states.

With the increasing share of renewable energies in electricity generation, new problems also arise for network operators. When the sun goes down, all consumers who use panels to supply their homes with electricity during the day tap into the power grid at exactly the same time. Utilities are increasingly integrating grid-scale battery storage to compensate for inconsistencies when demand exceeds supply, but these batteries are not yet capable of storing electricity for several days.

“I think anything we can do to make the demand curve more consistent will ultimately make the generation or delivery of electricity more reliable,” said Aaronson. “The ability to have more consistent, knowledgeable demand enables system planners to ensure that there is enough performance online to meet those customer needs.”

Having a better understanding of network requirements is one of the areas Itron helps utilities manage. The company offers demand-response software that reduces load during peak usage and also provides forecasting services to help utility companies model their future electricity needs.

This includes population growth and usage patterns as well as increased electrification, for example when electric vehicles are connected to the grid. The grid was originally built as a one-way system, but as consumers increasingly rely on on-site solar and storage systems to ensure power stability even in the event of a grid failure, utilities also have to adapt to the flow of electricity in both directions.

Rolling out blackouts, introduced in California in 2020, were the first in nearly two decades and demonstrated the problems the grid faces as weather patterns change and extreme climate events become more regular. The network was not built with climate change in mind and, as businesses in the west have seen more and more over the past few summers, businesses need to consider the impact to ensure long-term profitability.

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