Last week, the Thomas Fire -- the largest and most destructive fire currently raging in the region -- grew to 250,000 acres and claimed the life of a young fire engineer. This week, the blaze continues to spread across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties despite Herculean efforts to contain it.
Governor Jerry Brown called this “the new normal,” speaking at The New York Times’ ClimateTECH conference in San Francisco late last month. “California is burning up,” he said. “The fire season is not a couple of months in the summer; it’s virtually year-round.”
The risk of wildfires, enhanced by the higher temperatures and erratic weather brought by climate change, increases the urgency for California, as well as other state and national actors, to mitigate carbon emissions, according to Brown. Adapting to this riskier future is essential too -- especially for California’s electric utilities, which may bear responsibility for fueling the flames.
Southern California Edison reported last week that authorities are investigating the utility's equipment as a possible source of the Thomas fire. “The causes of the wildfires are being investigated by Cal Fire, other fire agencies and the California Public Utilities Commission," SoCal Edison said in the press release.
"The investigations now include locations beyond those identified last week as the apparent origin of these fires. SCE believes the investigations now include the possible role of its facilities,” the statement continues. “SCE continues to cooperate with the investigations. The wildfire investigations may take a considerable amount of time to complete. SCE will provide updated information as circumstances warrant."
SCE isn’t the only utility on the hook. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is part of a separate investigation by Cal Fire after blazes ripped through the Bay Area earlier this year, destroying California’s wine country and claiming dozens of lives.
Then on November 30, the CPUC issued a landmark decision denying San Diego Gas & Electric’s request to recover costs from the 2007 Southern California wildfires. Regulators determined that SDG&E “did not responsibly operate its facilities linked to the wildfires, which thereby prohibits the utility from recovering those costs in rates.”
SDG&E sought to recover $379 million, which represents a portion of the $2.4 billion in costs and legal fees the utility incurred to resolve third-party damage claims from the Witch, Guejito and Rice wildfires. In all three cases, SDG&E was found guilty of imprudent management.
“There is no dispute that SDG&E facilities caused these fires," said Commissioner Liane Randolph, in a statement. "The question we had to analyze was whether the costs related to the fires should be paid by customers or shareholders. The CPUC undertook a careful review of the facts of each fire and determined in each case that customers should not have to bear these costs.”
PG&E CEO Geisha Williams said the San Diego case presents a major challenge to utilities in an era of climate change.
“I’m disappointed,” she said of the decision, speaking at ClimateTECH on November 30. “That means San Diego Gas & Electric in this particular case will have to be able to cover those costs. If this was a once-in-20-years event, if this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, I might say, ‘Well, you know, go to it, San Diego Gas & Electric.’ But if these wildfires become the new normal, if these wildfires become endemic and part of the effects of climate change day in and day out, I don’t think it’s sustainable for utilities to afford that on a long-term basis.”
For investor-owned utilities, the inability to recover costs from a natural disaster presents a fundamental business risk, said Williams, because the equity firms, hedge funds and mom-and-pop shops these utilities rely on have a choice in where they put their money.
“How do we make sure we can continue to attract investment here in California at a time when we are so focused on continuing to drive improvements to our grid, continuing to integrate more and more renewables, and continuing this push toward electrification of really all things, but in particular the transportation sector?” she said. “How can we continue to attract smart investment if there’s a fear in the investment community that…there might be an undue risk associated with their ability to recover a fair rate of return?”
It’s unfair to put the burden squarely on energy companies for this reason, she said -- especially because fires are a societal issue. It’s an issue that involves better forest management, more resources and training for the first-responder community, and possible changes to building codes and land-use planning. Utilities also need to come up with new ways to prevent fires and ensure grid resilience.
“As a utility, I’m thinking, 'What do I need to do different?'” said Williams. “Do I need to go out with steel poles instead of wood poles? Does it make sense to underground certain sections? Do we have to expand our right-of-way for clearing?”
“So it’s a great time for leadership. It’s time for California to take a step back and say: What are the right solutions? What do we need to do to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to prevent and mitigate the impacts of wildfires and other climate change issues?” she added.
Last Thursday, the CPUC adopted new fire-safety regulations designed to do just that. The decision requires the state’s electric utilities to increase clearances between vegetation and power lines, conduct annual patrol inspections of overhead distribution facilities, prepare fire prevention plans, and take other steps to mitigate fires in high-risk zones. It also establishes a High Fire-Threat District map to inform where these actions are needed most.
“This new policy includes significant new fire-prevention rules for utility poles and wires, including major new rules for vegetation management,” said CPUC President Michael Picker. “The map includes a broader definition of fire threat and also shows how dramatically climate impacts are increasing fire risks -- land that is covered in the elevated, high and tree mortality fire hazard areas has grown from 31,000 square miles to 70,000 square miles. That’s 44 percent of California’s total land area.”
Responding to this risk isn’t limited to utilities. Amid the ever-growing threat of climate change and the wildfires it provokes, there’s a parallel conversation taking place on how new deployments of distributed energy resources and other grid edge technologies can aid in fire prevention and disaster resilience.
For instance, as fires tore through Northern California, the islanded microgrid at Stone Edge Farm near Sonoma operated independently for 10 days as the flames -- which may have been caused by power line neglect and deferred maintenance -- knocked out power nearby.
The Stone Edge microgrid features 300 kilowatts of rooftop solar, a microturbine, hydrogen fuel cells and battery storage with real-time monitoring and control, which successfully enabled the system to go into island mode. SimpliPhi Power's non-toxic batteries were credited for reducing the microgrid’s risk of catching fire, and other takeaways are now informing how the farm can serve as a community shelter in future. Examples such as this offer valuable insights on how energy stakeholders in California, and other parts of the country, can prepare for and manage disasters.
Coincidentally, while SimpliPhi batteries kept Stone Edge Farm in operation up north, SimpliPhi employees recently had to evacuate their headquarters and homes in Ojai, California farther south as the Thomas fire swept through the area. CEO Catherine Von Burg wrote a note to the company’s supporters last week stating that the fires have only strengthened its resolve to deliver robust distributed energy solutions.
“Our experience has only served to renew our commitment to making sure that every person worldwide has the ability to generate his or her own power, store it, and take it with them, on their terms,” she said. “Needless to say, we're returning to the office with a...greater passion to effect change and create energy security, even in the face of catastrophic fires and ensuing power outages, than ever before.”