Firefighters, forest communities and rural regions across California are talking about “the new normal” of climate change — more frequent and longer droughts, increased tree mortality, more devastating wildfires and more frequent floods.
In 2017, California experienced its most devastating wildfire year. The Thomas fire, the largest in state history, burned 280,000 acres in southern California. In the October through December “fire siege,” four of the 20 deadliest fires in state history caused 44 fatalities and more than $10 billion in damage.
If the state does not take steps now to reduce these risks, the future economic and future cost will keep rising. As soon as Thursday, the state Senate could vote on Senate Bill 1088, which would take a dramatic step toward resolving the twin risks of wildfires and climate change.
We urge the Legislature to pass this bill and the governor to sign it into law.
SB 1088, authored by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would require the state Office of Emergency Services to establish new standards for investor-owned utilities including PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric to increase the safety, reliability and resiliency of their electrical grids and physical plants. The utilities would be required to submit detailed plans to protect their power lines and facilities, clear defensible space around power lines and in some cases shut down power lines in high winds or fires. These plans would include significant public oversight and budgets, and would be monitored, reviewed and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission.
Adaptation to climate change will be no easy feat for utilities. When wildfires shut down power lines, utilities will need to ensure that hospitals, schools and water pumps keep running and that emergency responders have reliable backup power. If planned correctly, however, these challenges could be turned into opportunities for distributed energy, micro-grids and energy storage to make local power systems even more reliable.
These changes will be expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as the costs of inaction. Every dollar invested in reducing the risk of wildfire returns three dollars in avoided costs.
Sierra Business Council and our network of more than 4,000 businesses, local governments and community groups throughout the Sierra Nevada know all too well the human and material costs of wildfires. Our region has paid these costs for years, and every community anywhere in California that experiences wildfire has our heartfelt sympathy and support. That is why we strongly support passing SB 1088 to start down the path of grid reliability and resilience.
Steven Frisch is president of the Sierra Business Council. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.