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Wildfires and transmission, the great uncoupling

image credit: Photo 95782557 © - Dr
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Sep 9, 2020
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The American West is burning. At the time I’m writing this, more than 2 million acres have burned in California alone this summer. Current blazes in Washington, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana have sent smoke as far as Arkansas. 

In Whitman County, Washington, Sheriff  Bretty Myers said this in a statement: "The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words. The fire will be extinguished but a community has been changed for a lifetime." 

In California, PG&E was forced to cut off power to 500,000 customers. Ashley Helmetag, a senior meteorologist at the utility explained the dire nature of the situation, saying: “We are entering that period where our fuels are now reaching max critical dryness.”

All of this and fire season is still just about three weeks from ending, at least according to conventional thinking. Fire and weather experts have warned that a particularly windy fall could keep the fires alive for longer than usual. 

Over the past few years, many of the country's worst wildfires have been linked to utility negligence, specifically that of California’s PG&E. In 2019, California state investigators announced that badly maintained transmission gear had ignited the 2018 Camp fire. For those of you who don’t remember, the Camp fire raged through Northern California for about 17 days, leaving at least 85 people dead and causing 16.5 billion in damages. 

In light of such episodes, much attention has been paid to mitigating such problems from reoccurring. While it’s obvious enough that transmission gear needs to be maintained properly, the increasingly combustible California landscape would require further special consideration from the utilities that serve her. Some commentators have advocated the adoption of smart technologies like synchrophasors—sensors that detect if a line is broken and then shut off its power immediately so no fire is started. Others say that more drastic steps are necessary, like putting the grid underground. However, burying transmission is exorbitantly expensive and simply not feasible in many of the most fire-prone areas of California. 

It’s possible that the intensity of this fire season will further drive home the need for better transmission practices. However, it seems unclear to me how much good even a revolutionary re-haul of western transmission would do. As far as I know, none of the blazes this summer have been linked to electric lines. Most of the fires are thought to have been sparked by thunder, something completely out of our control. One nasty fire in Arizona was started by a Border Patrol agent who decided to reveal his future baby’s gender by blowing up a box in the middle of a dry grass field. 

I’m starting to think that the combination of a changing climate and rapid development has turned the American West into a tinderbox that will light up no matter what we do. If that’s true, utilities can breathe a sigh of relief knowing there’s little use in upgrading their fire-mitigating measures. Residents of the region, however, should start formulating an exit plan.


 

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