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Community Deep Dive: With wildfires in the western U.S. being tied to climate change, what can and should be done to create lasting change motivated by these blazes?

Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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This Q&A discussion prompt was inspired by this image and Tweet sent out by thought leader in the energy space Shayle Kann:

From pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels creating harmful and visible smogs to climate change worsening droughts and dry seasons that are prone to devastating wildfires, the current situation in the U.S. West demonstrates the damaging impacts of not decarbonizing. The information and images coming out might spark renewed and guttural motivation towards action, so what can we do to best harness and create results from this unfortunate and dire situation?

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In fact, geographical distribution of natural vegetation around the world has its own beauty-related mainly to soil and the monsoon pattern.  Tropical forests are denser compared to the temperate and present a heterogenic composition which in itself is a great advantage for the ecosystem.  In addition, the faunal composition also plays a role in preserving the tropical character.

Soil moisture content (SMC) greatly influences the composition and diversity of species distribution not only because of the moisture retention potential but even from the microbial population as well.

California with temperate coniferous forests has to some extent the xerophytic adaptation in their needle leaf unlike the tropical forests.  It is also possible that the comparatively less moisture content in the coniferous species would evaporate sooner during peak summer making it vulnerable for a quick burn potential.   This is further compounded by the species density as well - spreading branches during windy days may trigger fire due to friction, as well.

Now that the fire has prepared a ground for better species generation through the addition of ash content, this is the time that the forest officials need to adopt a different strategy to cash on the benefits of the new growth (lower density of conifers) combined with intermittent select species.  Since the pandemic has now been strongly advocating the needle shift from the fossil fuel generation to renewables, it will be an ideal situation for the Californian to seriously work out the statistics on biomass energy as well.   The litter gathered on the ground takes a longer time for decomposition by microbial populations due to the very nature of needle leaf.  The introduction of select indigenous species to achieve heterogenic character of the forest gradually enhances faster microbial action.

Climate change has in fact, resulted in higher temperatures than normal in several parts of the world.  California which has witnessed several forest fires by now as per the documentation, I am sure one can find the true causes of forest fires.  Enlisting them would indicate the major causes some of which could be manmade, as well.   The simultaneous action by the forest officials who are familiar with the routine practices and the other authorities concerned could certainly find a long term suitable solution, in due course.

Since the traffic rules are far more stringent, a little more intense supervision through modern gadgets at strategic locations would help them restrict human-induced fires.

The housing crisis seems to be fueling the promotion of forest fires. I am sure they can find their own solutions in choosing the fire-resistant construction material.

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Sep 21, 2020

Dr Shyam

I referenced this earlier paper above, but I'll repeat it here:

https://www.energycentral.com/c/ec/fires-and-storms-%E2%80%93-part-1-rev-b

See section 3. Our fires are generally not in our deep mountain forests (above 3,000 ft., in the coastal range), but rather in the chaparral (bushland or California interior chaparral and woodlands ecosystem). It's possible, if they are hot and it's dry and windy enough they may spread into the low-mountains (Low Sierras where I live), in general the mountains provide a fire-break for fires that originate lower, if the forests are well-maintained

There are trees and even large trees in the chaparral, but these are quite different than those in the Low Sierras and much more widely dispersed. If you are interested in this, read the post linked below.

https://www.energycentral.com/c/ec/trees

-John

 

A few quick comments that I hope will add to the conversation. 

We are seeing hourly power price spikes because of transmission line shut downs... although they are not extreme or very frequent  they are fairly significant during the hours in which they occur. And given the current condition of the grid in California these instances are very limited. 

I would have thought that occlusion and reduced production would have had a larger impact on grid reliability but the weather and load has cooperated. A key take away from the recent reliability issues is that more generation capacity is needed to overcome unforeseen renewable energy production challenges. 
 

Similarities can be made between the current conditions in California and when the polar vortex hit the northeast ... in both cases generation that was thought to be very reliable was not able to produce at expected levels during times of peak use, resulting in overall system supply challenges.  

 

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 23, 2020

"We are seeing hourly power price spikes because of transmission line shut downs..."

Indeed we were, Paul. At one point in the late afternoon of August 16, the wholesale cost of electricity on CAISO was $3,800/MWh. Shades of the 2000-2001 California Electricity Crisis.

Hi Guys:

Some information and a few upcoming posts on this subject.

The good news with these fires is:

1. as far as I know none was sparked by PG&E equipment, although they have resorted to Public Safety Power Shutoffs once. This hi my home in the Sierras (I was down here in Livermore). The warnings and notifications were prompt and thorough, and the duration of the shutoff seemed shorter than the ones last year.

2. The major fires around the Bay Area are almost out, but there a few really big ones North and South of us that CAL FIRE is just starting to control. See the link to CAL FIRE's Incident page below.

https://www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/

3. After 30 days of Spare the Air (really bad air quality from the smoke), we are out of this stretch today (but still foggy).

The bad news is that the wildfires are much more widespread this year, covering the whole West Coast.

At least in California, most of these fires were started by the incident described in the post linked below.

I have decided to write a major update on two posts from two years ago (minor update last year, linked below). This year is already a record year for wildfires, and the fire season usually doesn't end until late November. This also looks like a record hurricane season.  The final link below is a tweet from CAL FIRE discussing this season.

https://www.energycentral.com/c/ec/fires-and-storms-%E2%80%93-part-1-rev-b

https://www.energycentral.com/c/ec/fire-and-storms-%E2%80%93-part-2-rev-b

 

-John

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 16, 2020

That last graph on the size of fires I think is quite telling. For a lot of people who brush of the urgency of the climate crisis, the more data points you add (increasing frequency/size of hurricanes, increasing severity of heat waves, immense size of wildfires, etc.) the harder it is to turn away and pretend everything is OK. 

Normally, I automatically go into "solutionize" mode and after watching some of the maps of the fires, it occured to me that the California fires seem to be "coincidently" close to the lines of the St Andreas fault..or am i mistaken? So on the assumption that they are possibly linked, I am wondering if we need to consider short term measures first - (even in accordance with Disaster Management protocols) and then medium/long term measures with climate change and decarbonisation solutions high on the implementation agenda?

Unmanaged renewable fuel is burning, uncontrolled. Yes, atmospheric carbon levels push the biomass growth rate of non-native plants. Perhaps dozens of other environmental blunders.

The West is just like the dust bowl of 90 years ago. The dust bowl was solved by honest science leadership. Honest science is now very hard to find.

Climate politics is extremely dangerous. Pushing the fiber optic super-network in Walter Mondale's super-computer Minnesota in 1981, following the war in Asian rice paddies, makes me wonder if modern politics can solve anything. Honest science doesn't have a chance in public debate against the "give me free money" alliance. Some day soon food will be scarce because all the great farmers are long past retirement age.

Al Karaki's picture
Al Karaki on Sep 15, 2020

The definitive stance of the California State Govenor ....

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-12/california-governor-wildfires-cli...

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 17, 2020

Thanks Al. As a long time scientist, I still don't know what "climate change" looks like. But I greatly prefer discussion over generalized, angry declarations.

Some very simple science is that plastic interferes with water evaporation. And the Pacific Ocean has become a global dump. As a somewhat physicist, I suspect this has a larger effect on California's "climate change" than CO2 radiant heat entrapment.

Still, I'm delighted Stanford University has a program called, "Center for Quantum Molecular Design." Many are now talking about "solar biofuels," dyes for solar harvesting fiberglass roofing, etc.

Many new old ideas are finally appearing on the radar that replace the failed ideas, and are based on real science solutions. Any biophysical chemist out there would agree photochemical fracturing of stable cellulose into high energy fuels and biochar is better than photochemical wildfire. However, very hard to find biophysicists anymore.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 17, 2020

I haven't heard about the impact that ocean plastics may have on climate and what sorts of equilibriums are reached-- I'd love to read more about this if you had a link to a paper/study you'd recommend on the topic, Rick

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 17, 2020

Sincere thanks, Matt. A great starting point is the documentary, "Planet Ocean," free to watch here

https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/planet-ocean/

The topic of water physical chemistry is pervasive, ranging from common sense to unintelligible theory. Plastic wrap, soaps, health care, consumer goods.  My grad research in "The Laboratory for Biophysical Chemistry" and later the NMR lab (proton magnetic resonance) at the U of MN focused on trying to connect biochemistry and physics around water. Ultimately leading to a thesis "Protein as Dynamically Reconfigurable Liquid Crystal Microprocessor." Basically, water is a semiconductor, acids bases, proton donors acceptors, and protein is a circuit that changes shape. Intelligence.

My current efforts are to keep up with new CO2 driven plant growth without running out of water. And I hate burning firewood. Every farmer understands California. They should cherish their ocean as we do our lakes.

Matt, all of these effects were predicted over thirty years ago. Only when entire cities are burned to the ground does the public pay attention.

What can we do to best harness and create results to fight climate change? Do something else that was predicted thirty years ago, too, and the the California Council on Science and Technology emphasized 10 years ago - build out nuclear plants as fast as possible. If we had done what France started doing 45 years ago, our grid would be 100% carbon-free now. Instead, we're wasting our time with intermittent, renewable toys that are not up to the task, and never will be. Enough is enough.

If I sound frustrated, I am. I am very, very frustrated. It's starting to look like humankind will not be able to solve a problem that it's caused - not because it lacked the technology, or the resources, but because Homo Sapiens is too stupid.

john Liebendorfer's picture
john Liebendorfer on Sep 13, 2020

Bob

 

I whole heartedly agree they we have lost over thirty years in the fight against climate change.  but completely disagree with your blaming wasting time on renewable.  The lack of progress is totally   the fossil fuel industry, including electric utilities and the the Republican party who have  denied and stone walled any attempt to solve the problem.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 14, 2020

John, the lack of progress with renewables has nothing to do with politics.
Power from the wind and sun is too diffuse and intermittent. If consumers were willing to return to an agrarian lifestyle of the 1600s, or willing to pay ten times what they do now for electricity, yes - we might be able to get a grid powered by renewables, to work, some of the time.
But the public will never sacrifice the convenience of reliable power they take for granted now, and they will never consent to paying ten times what they do now for electricity. That rules out solar and wind from ever making a significant contribution to grid electricity.

Nicholas Klank's picture
Nicholas Klank on Sep 18, 2020

Nuclear is not a perfect system for energy generation. It takes days to spin down and spin back up nuclear turbines. There's the NIMBY battle (who wants a new nuclear plant in their neighborhood?) and the whole melt-down risk. After that, there's the spent fuel rods that still have to be dealt with and the lesser known but very dangerous factor of expelled heat.

In the 2003 European heat wave, betwee 15,000-70,000 people died (depending on source) partly because nuclear plants had to be spun down due to the heat they were creating. Their coolant has to expell heat just like a car's radiator. The problem was that their heat exchange was happening in local rivers and lakes. The water levels were very low since there had been no rain and it was the hottest it had been since the 1500s. There was nowhere to expel the heat so they had to shut many plants down. 

Due to the amount of time it takes to turn on and turn off nuclear turbines, nuclear can't react to the changing loads required by the grid. Utilities try to match power needs exactly because it otherwise just goes to the ground and is wasted (lost revenue for utility). Coal has a similar problem because their furnaces take about 10 hours to turn on. Gas turbines can be turned on like a car so they're the only fossil-fuel solution to this problem. 

There are other, more expensive options like creating a water reservoir at elevation and cycling the water into the reservoir when power is plentiful and cheap and then running it through the turbine when power is in need. 

Renewables do have periods of downtime but, for the most part, they're generating during the time that most energy is being used. As utility-scale batteries become more available, they will be able to provide power during low-generation periods.

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