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


A customer shops for groceries at La Tapatia Market during a blackout in Napa, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The electric grid in the West is being tested like never before amid extreme-weather events, including raging wildfires and severe droughts fueled by climate change.

Utility companies are struggling to respond. Californians have had power cut preemptively when the risk of fire is high, while rolling blackouts have been implemented when supply is stretched thin.

There’s also the danger that aging and poorly maintained infrastructure poses. PG&E filed for bankruptcy after the company’s equipment sparked several wildfires in the past few years, including the 2018 Camp Fire blaze that killed more than 80 people and razed the town of Paradise, California.

“The amount of environmental pressures that are on utilities, given aging infrastructure, plus more wildfires and more hurricanes and more pressures like that, when there has been a systematic lack of investment in resiliency and reliability, it does catch up with you,” said Thomas Deitrich, CEO at Itron, which helps utilities manage and analyze energy and water usage. “And that’s what you see in some cases, with certain utilities today.”

There are steps that utilities can take toward becoming resilient, including installing tech-enabled sensors for a more accurate snapshot of the conditions around power lines. Further, sophisticated forecasting can help utilities understand what their power needs will be down the line.

However, making the necessary updates to infrastructure is a costly endeavor. The electricity infrastructure investment gap is estimated to be $208 billion through the end of the decade, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Even though the grid in any particular area is really one big machine where everything has to work in concert … that machine has millions of individual parts,” said Steven Weissman, a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Orchestrating all of this, getting all of these individual players to do their part, is an enormous challenge,” said Weissman, a former administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission.

California and the West’s power problems have taken center stage this summer, but there are issues across the U.S. as well. The need to make power infrastructure across the country more resilient has been a focus of President Joe Biden’s spending proposals.

The latest version of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure plan earmarks $73 billion for investment in power infrastructure, which the plan’s fact sheet says is the “single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.”

Investing in grid resiliency and reliability

A hotshot crew from Redding with a strike team from the LAFD work the Dixie Fire near Taylorsville, California, U.S., July 29, 2021.

David Swanson | Reuters

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

One of the most important steps in making the grid more resilient is improving situational awareness— that is, having a better understanding of what’s going on in the network – according to Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at Edison Electric Institute, which is the trade association for investor-owned utilities.

This includes installing sensor arrays, which provide granular snapshots of what’s going on at every point in the system. Companies can monitor wind speeds and dried vegetation levels so that they’re aware of the areas with the highest fire risk. With enhanced situational awareness, grid operators can also make decisions in near real time about whether to deenergize lines if conditions become too dangerous.

The amount of environmental pressures that are on utilities, given aging infrastructure … when there has been a systematic lack of investment in resiliency and reliability, it does catch up with you.

Thomas Deitrich

CEO at Itron

Risk mitigation measures

Other infrastructure safety upgrades include replacing wooden poles with those made from steel, as well as coating wires to reduce fire risk.

Erik Takayesu, Southern California Edison’s vice president for asset strategy and planning, said the company takes a 360-degree view of its infrastructure. In addition to utilizing ground patrols, the company also deploys drones and helicopters to take high-resolution images in an effort to detect even the smallest anomalies.

“We’ve had operational practices around wildfire mitigation for years. But as things intensify with the wildfire risk we’ve stepped up our wildfire mitigation strategy,” he said. This year, the company, which supplies roughly 15 million people in central, coastal and southern California, plans to spend around 20% of its budget on wildfire mitigation. This includes a team of meteorologists and fire science experts that are constantly monitoring conditions.

“We see the effects of it [climate change] now, and we know if we don’t get control of this, the effects are only going to get worse,” Takayesu said.

Power infrastructure is ubiquitous, and implementing these changes is costly. Investor-owned utilities serve about 75% of all customers across the U.S. These companies must seek regulatory approval before raising prices on consumers. While they’re encouraged to invest in new capital infrastructure, there are incentives to underspend on operation and maintenance.

“It is very much a relationship between the utility and the utility commission,” said Itron’s Deitrich. “They’re trying to balance rates to consumers, and how much risk to take on the resiliency and reliability side of things.”

Problems on the supply side

Fallen power lines touch the ground on Camino Diablo road in Lafayette, California, U.S., on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Utilities are also facing issues on the supply side of the equation as climate change raises temperatures and widespread drought reduces the available hydropower. Unlike public safety power shutoffs, which occur because of safety risks, rolling blackouts are implemented when the grid doesn’t have enough supply.

Already this summer the California Independent System Operator has asked residents to conserve power on multiple occasions in order to cut unnecessary usage when demand is expected to spike. One of these flex alerts was issued as recently as Wednesday, July 28.

The state is the largest power importer in the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. With record temperatures and severe drought occurring all over the West, some of the out-of-state power that California has traditionally relied on has been compromised. Record wildfires this summer throughout the West have also threatened key transmission lines between states.

As renewable energy becomes a greater portion of power generation, new problems also arise for grid operators. When the sun goes down, all of the consumers who were using panels to power their homes during the day tap the grid at exactly the same time. Utilities are incorporating more and more grid-scale battery storage to smooth out inconsistencies when demand exceeds supply, but these batteries aren’t yet capable of storing power over multiple days.

“I think anything we can do to make the demand curve more consistent ultimately makes power generation or power delivery more reliable,” said Aaronson. “Being able to have a more consistent, knowable demand allows for system planners to make sure there’s enough power online for those customer needs.”

Gaining better visibility into demands on the grid is one of the areas that Itron helps utilities manage. The company offers demand response software that reduces load during peak usage, and also provides forecasting services that help utilities model their future power needs.

This includes population growth and usage patterns as well as increased electrification as things like EVs move onto the grid. The grid was initially built as a one-way system, but with consumers increasingly turning to on-site solar and storage as a way to guarantee power resiliency even if the grid goes down, utilities also have to adapt to power flowing both ways.

The rolling blackouts instituted in California in 2020 were the first in nearly two decades, demonstrating the struggles the grid faces as weather patterns change and extreme climate events become more regular. The grid wasn’t built with climate change in mind and — as companies in the West have seen more and more in recent summers — companies need to factor in the impacts to ensure long-term viability.

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