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Climate Conundrum: Wildfires, Wine, Waste & Going Without in CA

I present to you California. A state that is far ahead of others when it comes to grid modernization, DER, demand response, energy storage, and many other things that will improve the electricity system and reduce emissions. A state that doesn't yet have enough of those things but needs them immediately so that it can better manage wildfire threats and impacts without having to shut off millions of customers because there is no other choice under its present grid system. A state that is considered to be one of the leaders when it comes to climate awareness and steps taken to address climate change. A state whose otherwise progressive residents seem to not make realize that their daily actions as well as actions being taken around them are totally antithetical to trying to reduce emissions.

All of these things come together in the California Zone.

Wildfires and Wine

Over the course of the past long weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in the Bay Area of Northern California, across from San Francisco. A little business, a little personal time, including some time in the wine valleys just to the North.

My timing was not impeccable.

By the time I was ready to do the personal part, the northern part of Sonoma County was on fire, and it was spreading southward. Wineries were on fire. Cities you may have visited were being evacuated. PG&E had already begun a "planned outage" for almost a million customers (although the very reason they were doing it - avoiding a wire-caused fire seems to actually be what started the fire, meaning the utility may not have started the planned outage early enough. 

But I went north to Sonoma anyway, because if I like my scotch smoky, then why not my cabernet charred?

Some wineries were open but some not, due to the need to let employees get to their homes. The fires were still in the Northern part of the Valley but the Southern part was OK. But that night, 90+ mph winds howled through the valley adding insult to injury relative to fire conditions and spread. As you can guess, everyone even in the safe areas was on edge and talking about nothing else than what would come next.

The fires seem to be part of a new normal for California, but it is not the fires that i want to talk about. As you can guess, I want to talk about electricity.  

Without

A planned outage is pretty much what it sounds like. It means the utility is going to turn off your power as a preventative measure because to leave the lines energized between you and other parts of the system (including the power source) might cause a fire in the dry-as-tinder land they pass through. I have been in plenty of outages caused by storms of all types, and even been in a couple of the big Northeastern blackouts. In the case of storms, you know the possibility exists that you may go out. As for blackouts, they happen suddenly and you are surprised but yet because it is unexpected you view it mainly as an inconvenience.

But in a planned outage, the utility tells you 1-2 days in advance that they will be shutting off your power, and that of more than a million of your friends and neighbors. They give you an estimate of when it might come back on, but that estimate has nothing to do with fixing the distribution lines on your street or repairing a transmission line that toppled somewhere. The lines are all up and ready to operate. The utility will turn its system back on when it seems it safe to do without causing a fire.

I can say based on my experience that when the power goes out in a planned outage, it feels strange, because there does not seem to be any reason that it should go out. It just doesn't feel right. It's weird.

It feels even stranger when the cellular network starts to diminish in quality and availability. Apparently not all of the towers have back-up generation. 

The power went out where I was staying on Saturday night. It was not yet on at mid-day Monday and it was not looking good for the coming days. Yet it just felt like it should be on. I wasn't the only one to feel that way.

That means more people will be saying (like I overheard) "I am getting my own generator". Last time I looked the kind of generator they were referring to runs on fossil fuel. That's not a good action to take if climate change is the main culprit in creating the situation that is causing them to want a generator.

It means more people will think a bit before they buy an EV, for reasons that I think are obvious.

When those types of feelings grow as planned outages keep coming, there may be some strange mindsets developing amongst electricity customers in California.

The size and scope of the problem in CA is not something that a little bit of grid modernization and DER can fix. It is going to take massive, rapid grid modernization, and a lot of DER. It may take an entire rethinking of the electricity system there. It is going to take a lot of synchrophasor deployment and a lot of distribution automation. It is going to require a healthy application of microgrid technologies. It is going to have to get to a point where the fading term "smart grid" is really appropriate to use in that there will be multiple options for re-routing power delivery and isolating part of the system that are either threatened or safe.

A PG&E Executive was quoted as saying it may take 10 years.

So what we have is a case of where the rate of grid change has been eclipsed by the rate of climate change and its impacts.

But was not the only thing that I saw in CA that was not keeping up with addressing climate change.

Waste

On the Friday afternoon before my group headed up to wine country, we went to a bar and restaurant in the East Bay town I was staying in. It was relatively new and the architecture was what is all the rage now - being able to open a lot of windows or maybe even a whole wall to the outside so that people inside can feel like they are (almost) outside. It also is seen as a sign that the establishment is open and welcoming. 

My group wanted to be in the "actual" outside so that is where they seated us. But soon after sitting, we noticed that the air conditioning inside the restaurant was on!  Since almost an entire wall of the place was wide open next to us, it meant that the building's A/C unit was essentially trying to get the ambient temperature of earth's entire atmosphere to whatever degree level it was set for. My reaction was immediate. How can this be - in what most would consider to be the most climate-conscious, climate-active, energy efficient state in the country? How could it be that while everyone in the area was bemoaning the impact of climate change on the fires and therefore the planned outages, this restaurant was wasting energy and increasing emissions in such an obvious way?

I asked our server what was going on, and she was nice about it but also said something like "this is what we always do". I asked her politely if the restaurant could shut off the A/C or close things up, and she said that she would let the manager know. Nothing ever happened and given that I was a guest among local folks, I did not push the issue.

But this was not the first time I have witnessed this phenomenon. I would predict that you have seen it in your city, even if you had a few moments of cognitive dissonance and didn't realize what was actually happening in front of you.

In my city of Washington, DC, I am happy to say that the city government moved to stem the "open-door" trend in retail establishments. A couple of years ago it passed a new ordinance called "Shut the Front Door DC". It says that commercial properties must close their doors and windows when using air conditioning. It explains on its website that while properties may want to incur extra costs to keep the door open as a sign of welcome, they should not do that because the impact on demand raised the costs for all customers. Fine range from $100 to $800 from the first to fourth violation.

The link to the "Shut the Front Door program on the DC government website is here

But that was not all of the obvious waste I saw in CA.......

While up north, my group did get to visit a

few wineries that either were far enough south of the fires, or located over in Napa and had a generator to keep their operations going. (Napa was part of the planned outage)

At each winery we visited there was at least one limo or passenger van idling in the parking lot while the driver and his tourists were inside tasting the wine. In one case, a vehicle was idling with the windows down and the A/C on. I decided that I would in a respectful way point this out to the drivers. All of them looked a bit surprised, but all of them went out and shut them off. 

California actually has an anti-idling law, as do 23 other states. Almost all of these laws are aimed at commercial vehicles. I do not know the details of the CA law but it seems that the vehicles at the wineries were actually in violation of it.

I can point to DC once again as one of the jurisdictions that has an anti-idling law. Moreover, DC has a pilot program for citizens to report violations via the city's 311 app that is used to access city info and request services. The link to more is here.

In Summary

So what is the moral of this tale of my trip?

It could be patience, which will be needed in California and other places that will need time to both harden and "smarten" their electricity systems to accommodate climate change impacts.

It could be awareness, which will be needed so that all of us can connect pretty much any action we take or see being taken by others to an obvious or potential climate change impact. Greenhouse gas emissions shouldn't be compartmentalized, but instead something that we think about when we view things around us.

It could be alarm, in that we seem to suddenly be in a crazy situation, instead of having gradually approached one that must be far in the future and only potential in nature.

It could be optimism, in that we know what we need to do, which is to inject a rapid and massive dose of political will and funding into our efforts aimed at adapting to the climate change already "baked-in" and reducing emissions so that more impacts are not put in that category.

In reality it has to be all those things.

We are in a race against an emissions timeline that is shorter than we think. We are in a race in which we need to accelerate grid modernization and any and all steps to address climate change. It is a race in which everyone has to be on the track - no one can be a spectator.  It is a race that we have to win.

Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 12, 2019 2:09 pm GMT

So what is the moral of this tale of my trip?

It could be patience, which will be needed in California and other places that will need time to both harden and "smarten" their electricity systems to accommodate climate change impacts.

This is a valuable lesson, and one that I think isn't being practiced by many pushing reactionary responses to the situation-- how do you think you can best go about preaching this message to people and leaders who want to take drastic action now?

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Nov 15, 2019 4:10 pm GMT

The moral of this story reads like the Emperors New Clothes.  Lots of hype but the substance of California’s energy leadership is a little disjointed and lacking.  Dan raised several good points that describe how even the best of intentions can be thwarted in implementation.  Unfortunately state liability laws that hold the electric utility financially responsible for fires attributed to their network fail to spread the blame to all of the contributing players - regulators and legislators that put investment in alternative energy sources ahead of grid security, local governments that allow substandard construction in fire prone and heavily forested areas, and environmentalists that prevent proper forest and easement management.  Another example to add to Dan’s list - the town of Coffey Park (a suburb of Santa Rosa) burned down in 2017 (a PG&E related fire) but the local authorities have exempted all reconstruction from state building codes designed to provide wildfire prone areas with fire protection.

Mark Goldes's picture
Mark Goldes on Nov 15, 2019 4:24 pm GMT

A FAST FIX FOR PG&E TO PREVENT FOREST FIRES

By Lew Weingarth    Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering with MBA training in international business. 35 years working all over the world. Expert in power plants and energy.

What is the REAL problem with PG&E? Simple, a power line fails and starts a forest fire. Remember, the results are not the cause. Now that we know the problem, let's look at solutions.

PG&E apparently has ignored maintenance for years, and is now blacking out areas to cut limbs away from lines. That's fine, and needed, but Stone Age and reduces, but doesn't solve, the real problem - fires starting when a line fails.

Today, we have protective relays that can monitor the electrical waveform on lines IN USE, detect when a tree branch nears, and shut down before contact. The idea is remove power before enough power flows into something that can burn to ignite it. This isn't fantasy; protective relays can monitor all waveforms a thousand times a second. Forget waiting for an overload to heat up some breaker; we can open the breaker as the wind blows the power line close enough that the tree limb just starts to distort the waveform, and have it completely dead by the time they touch. In most cases, we can detect and open the breaker in 1/5th of a second.

Today, we have high-speed contactors that can open and isolate power on the line BEFORE ENOUGH ENERGY FLOWS TO START A FIRE.

In summary, we can eliminate 99% of fires simply by adding protective relays and fast breakers along the lines.

No need to bury lines and no need to even trim trees, though lack of trimming would mean fire-preventing blackouts whenever the wind blows.

The technology in these protective relays was invented in the USA by Edmund  Schweitzer who then founded Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) located in Pullman, WA. 

SEL relays are 25% of the cost of similar products from Siemens or ABB, and guaranteed for 10 years. After 10 years the technology has improved enough you will want to upgrade.

SEL not only manufactures these protective relays but also has a $2 million power simulator.  They can simulate power lines, trees, motors, literally anything you can describe. 

They begin using the normal Engineers paper and pencils method. Then they program the system into their simulator. Next, they go to the real, existing system, and measure waveforms at various places to verify the model is right.  That way they know their protection design will work. 

My experience is their stuff almost always works the first time, but only because they worked out the bugs in the lab before shipping. In my opinion, the best protective relays on earth come from SEL. 

GREEN SWANS -highly improbable inventions with huge impact can gradually replace the grid with 24/7/365 on-site power. See aesopinstitute.org for examples.

Kathy Kuntz's picture
Kathy Kuntz on Nov 15, 2019 8:54 pm GMT

Thanks for sharing this! I really appreciated you highlighting all the waste that still occurring amid these climate disasters.  It's time for all of us to stop doing dumb stuff! Opening walls while running the A/C is dumb, as is idling. Stories like yours are a great first step in engaging folks to think about how it's all interconnected.

Saharat Nikornpan's picture
Saharat Nikornpan on Nov 17, 2019 9:58 pm GMT

It's not the race in this emission time line Dan. It is an entrapment for humankind and there is absolutely no way out as long as human race or Mother Nature exists. The crux of this realm of energy we run on is the wrong stuff that we hang on to dear life. Living on centralized energy is also wrong but why we're running on now when it is wrong? That because the materials that we need as sources of energy don't allow us to decentralize. So everything in this realm is wrong. That's the reason we get stuck in this climate change conundrum forever. 

The conclusion in this talking point is that If we don't come up with the new perspective to totally change the way to live our lives we will have to stay with this conundrum for good. 

It is so sad when Mother Nature offers the righteous thing but we don't see it and go on picking up the wrong things from her. There is something so beautiful around us that we can break free out of this conundrum. But we have to build the gadgets to harness the hidden powers in our surrounding. But why is it so hard that we have to work hard to get what we want in life? That is because we are humans. Our way of life and body structure differ so much from any creatures.

The righteous energy that is so benign for mother Nature. Nothing is taken from her to consume but rather to recycle her most abundant element(water). This is the idea of working with her not against her as what we are doing now.

 

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