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The Wildfire Threat to Energy

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Nathan  Sykes's picture
Founder Finding an Outlet

I'm a writer first and a techie second, though sometimes those can change. I'm Pittsburgh, PA and interested in the ways in which technology is impacting the ways we live and do business.

  • Member since 2018
  • 14 items added with 68,722 views
  • Aug 26, 2019

Our changing climate also means a changing risk of wildfires. Some areas above the Arctic Circle, which hardly ever see wildfires, now host some of the biggest fires on the planet. You can see them from space.

Climate change means a higher risk of wildfires here and throughout the world. It means more wildfires in urbanized areas, too.

The wildfire wildcard presents huge challenges for the energy industry. It also delivers opportunities. Before those, however, we need to better understand the relationship between wildfires and energy generation and distribution.

The Relationship Between Wildfires and Energy

In 2018, the United States Forest Service spent around $2.9 billion nationwide fighting wildfires and addressing the damage. California, home to the recent and deadly Camp Fire, spent $1 billion from its own fire department. The cost to business and residential properties, to say nothing of the lives lost, can be colossal.

As climate change worsens, so does the threat of wildfires. Hotter temperatures mean more water in the atmosphere instead of on the ground, where it accumulates over time and causes droughts. Storm events become more destructive as a result.

All of these factors only raise the Dollar price tag even further.

Consequently, energy finds itself one of several industries that must transform and harden itself against rising temperatures and their consequences.

​​​​​​​What the Energy Industry Must Do Better

The threat of damage from storm events and wildfires isn’t news. But the frequency of these events is. Of the 13 wildfire events on records with losses in the billions of Dollars, six of them happened in 2017 or 2018.

The entities that build, maintain, and (as required) repair our energy infrastructure are feeling the pressure. As of February 2019, California’s largest utility company, PG&E, was on the hook for up to $30 billion in catastrophe liabilities tied to wildfires. California law says utility companies must shoulder the cost of liabilities even in the absence of negligence.

With the frequency and destructive capacity of wildfires on the rise, utility companies everywhere are looking to make changes to mitigate future damage, keep costs down, and make it easier to recover after a catastrophe strikes.

Here are some of the ways they’re doing that:

  • Infrastructure design: Energy suppliers on the coast, like power companies and oil concerns, have long known the value of designing resilient buildings. Now, electricity companies everywhere must also take measures to keep risks at bay, including using covered conductors wherever transmission lines cross through densely vegetated areas.
  • More aggressive vegetation management: Whether or not they opt for covered transmission lines, energy distribution companies must create a defensible space around transmission lines and facilities. Any areas where branches and blowdown may contact transmission lines or ignite from another source are a threat to infrastructure.
  • Roll out new inspection processes and equipment: Other utility companies are deploying newer inspection technologies and processes. That might include staffing up in key areas, performing routine inspections more frequently, and using infrared imaging and internet-connected equipment to pinpoint issues more accurately and deliver alerts more quickly.
  • Use reinsurance markets: Some companies choose to transfer their wildfire risk rather than attempt to mitigate it themselves. That might mean signing a contract with a reinsurer. Such coverage comes at a high cost, but in some areas, it may still be a more manageable solution than putting more proactive measures in place.
  • Microgrids and other technologies: We will hear much more about microgrids in the coming months and years. An electric grid can be as small as a single power source (like a solar panel) and one client (like a home). Microgrids are semi-autonomous power grids, consisting of one or many power sources and clients, that can receive power from a larger grid, contribute power of its own, or operate independently.

Microgrids, in particular, are likely to become one of the most important tools as we build more resilient infrastructure across the globe, like in Puerto Rico, that can handle the worst of what wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes can dish out. Because they can function independently, microgrids can help keep blackouts to a minimum during disastrous events, keep more people electrified, and make it easier to trace and fix problems after recovery begins.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Wildfires, Energy and a Clean Future

We’ve known for a while about the link between climate change and wildfires, and between wildfires and the risks to energy distribution. But before that, we knew that having stable and inclusive energy infrastructure is essential if we want to pivot to clean energies successfully.

We need to use all the technologies at our disposal to keep our existing oil and natural gas pipelines safe and functional. But the future belongs to renewables.

And that means turning to solar and wind to keep us powered when the grid, and Mother Nature, turns on us; doubling-down on residential and commercial storage batteries; building many more microgrids; and engaging more closely with environmental subject matter experts to balance our needs with nature’s.

Nathan  Sykes's picture
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