The electrical equipment that keeps sparking California wildfires may become outdated and superfluous as the grid is updated in the coming decades. Efforts to prevent fires should look to the future, starting with microgrids that generate solar electricity and store it.
As evidence accumulates suggesting a PG&E line started the Camp Fire, people are calling for the utility to bury transmission lines and turn off electricity during times of high risk. But burying the lines would cost billions of dollars and take many years, and shutting down the power supply can incur heavy social and economic losses.
Microgrid systems would reduce impacts of fire-risk reduction outages while increasing local supplies of secure electricity and accelerating California’s response to the climate crisis.
They could be designed to supply schools, clinics, shelters, grocery stores and other essential services for days or even weeks, preserving electricity for those who need it most when transmission lines need to be shut off.
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Once locations are selected and designs completed, microgrids could be built quickly, reducing the need to bury lines in some areas. Most would be expected to save money over time. A school in Ojai installed a microgrid after a 2007 fire, starting construction in 2015. Its simple payback period is 18 years. A comparable project today would take even less time to pay back since both solar and storage have greatly declined in cost.
California is already exploring developing offshore wind electricity. In five to ten years, solar microgrids could be coupled to an offshore supply; their undersea transmission lines, are safe from fires. The wind and solar power generated could be connected to the electrical grid with new underground infrastructure that will not soon be obsolete. Moreover, offshore wind, being plentiful in the winter and available in the evenings and nights, is an excellent complement to solar power.
An acceleration of renewable energy plans based on solar microgrids might face powerful opposition from investor-owned utilities like PG&E. But these utilities now need public support to survive – a situation that has arisen at least in part from their own inattention to the risks (to put it very politely).
California urgently needs a Climate Resilience Authority. It could be stand-alone or part of an existing agency like the California Energy Commission. A part of its function would be to shepherd the process of transforming the electricity system so it will be more robust, more resistant to fire, and more resilient in recovery while accelerating the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. This investment would protect the state’s people, environment, and economy – and extend the tradition of leadership in energy that California first established in the wake of the first energy crisis in 1973.