What is the value of technology that can sense a problem with a power line and cut the electricity flowing through it faster than it’s able to hit the ground and ignite nearby vegetation? What about mini independent power grids that can disconnect from the main utility and function in the case of a system-wide failure — allowing critical infrastructure like hospitals and first responders to still operate while mitigating the potential fire hazard for the larger community?
Clean technologies like these that allow greater control over the power grid already exist.
They’re the kinds of solutions that should make hard choices easier — like the decision that local utility PG&E had to make about whether or not to keep power running during November’s fire in Paradise, California. Solutions like these mean that people may not lose their homes to fire, that power can be restored in minutes or hours versus days or weeks, and that essential services can keep lights and heating and cooling systems on during emergencies.
The question is — why aren’t utilities racing to incorporate them?
We used to be a nation that invested in energy technology and while some utilities have begun testing and incorporating newer clean technologies — we’re not anywhere near a transition.
The conversation has been stuck at the estimated $1 trillion cost of building a modern smart grid across the country. But we’re already spending $150 billion per year right now from outages due to weather alone. And in 2017, PG&E faced up to $6 billion for damages from that year’s wildfires. At that price, across the country, we could be integrating synchrophaser sensors that can detect and react within seconds to problems along miles of power lines, (which San Diego Gas and Electric has begun doing), along with microgrids.
Microgrids would make the biggest difference in a natural disaster. A large connected grid means limitless vulnerabilities that can wipe out the entire system, and continuous power that’s hard to isolate and manage when there are trouble spots. Self-contained and resilient — if there’s a problem with a microgrid, it only affects the immediate area. In the case of a wildfire it can be entirely shutdown, remotely managed, and easily restarted once danger has passed. Their small, compact nature also means that select sections of the grid can be kept in operation even if everything else is off.
While major utilities in the state have yet to adopt them, California has notable microgrids in operation — several of which belong to the military and serve as teaching examples: Camp Pendleton, Fort Hunter Liggett and Borrego Springs. Even Alcatraz runs on a microgrid.
Historically, the United States has always made the shift to the next era of power generation — from wood and hydro, to coal, to oil and then nuclear — but that hasn’t been happening this time around as renewables and clean technologies have become viable. The current power grid is literally stuck in the 60’s — an analogue system that relies on centralized generation and endless miles of cables, poles and substations spread over long distances. One major disruption along the line and the whole thing can go down, and worse, as we’ve repeatedly now seen in California — it can contribute to the damage done.
The unfortunate short answer to why utilities have been slow to adopt these innovations is that “it’s complicated.” It involves changing behavior and re-orienting and aligning current disincentives built into the regulated utility system into incentives to invest and deploy. This is the nature of moving from central generation to the future of distributed generation. Utilities, regulators and politicians are unsure of how to control and make money from distributed generation.
As the fires in California have demonstrated, natural disasters as a result of drier land from lack of rainfall, increasingly dangerous storms and other climate change related problems are already here and will only get worse. The California Climate Assessment forecasts that by 2050 the area burned by fire in the state will increase by 77 percent and costs will go up by 24 percent. — But the need for better technology is as simple as the reality that it will always be impossible to maintain tens of thousands of miles of cables and the natural world that grows around them to a level that ensures safety without incident.
Making the investment in modernizing our energy infrastructure means we’ll be prepared with a more resilient system for future natural disasters. Now that we know — there’s no excuse for inaction.
Jigar Shah is the founder of renewable energy company SunEdison.
Modern energy infrastructure could mitigate California’s wildfire crisis, by Jigar Shah, The Hill, January 12, 2019.