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Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire

By Denise Fairchild and Kim Evon

California’s fire season is back. Yet if this past week is any indication, our emergency response remains woefully inadequate.  When disaster strikes we are far from being energy resilient, ensuring reliable access to electricity for our most vulnerable communities.

Climate fires are California’s new normal.  Dangerous combinations of high (20-60 mph) sustained winds and tinderbox drought conditions wreaked havoc throughout the state last week.  Massive evacuations from the Saddleridge fire in northwest Los Angeles and the Reche Fire in Moreno Valley spared life, if not property, from thousands of acres of burning land.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) took pre-emptive measures.  They shut off power in over 30 counties in northern California.  In this way, they avoided a repeat of the 2018 fire season, the state’s deadliest, in which electrical equipment was blamed for conflagrations that killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 homes. 

But the shutoffs were a disaster of another kind.  They left close to a million people and more than half the counties in the state without power, or recourse, for nearly a week.  

The PG&E power shutoffs were a colossal failure, according to utility and elected officials, local agencies, and residents.   The disruption was widespread:  accidents caused by failed street lights, schools closed, businesses idled, food supplies and basic services – public transit and water – compromised.   And as premeditated as this emergency response was, residents were left in the dark; not just from the power outage, but from the lack of information.  No one could get information about what to expect or what to do in a power emergency.   PG&E’s communication and computer systems crashed, their website went down, their community resource centers were underprepared and useless.  The shutoff prevented fires, but not the burn; everyone fumed.

There must be a better plan for power outages, and emergency response in general, to prepare for recurring natural and manmade disasters.  This is especially important for vulnerable communities.  Life and death hangs in the balance. Financially strong families and businesses were inconvenienced, but managed. Early reports indicate that hospitals and nursing homes were protected by backup generators.  Isolated and helpless, however, were the countless families and their caregivers who rely on ventilators, respirators and refrigeration for medical reasons. SEIU2015, the California Long Term Care Workers’ Union that represents over 400,000 caregivers across the state most of whom provide in-home care to seniors, children and adults with disabilities say most of these caregivers and their patients are stranded whenever there is a blackout. 

The utility sector needs to proactively engage and support the home health sector in its energy and emergency management strategies.  A recent focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers by Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015 found the lack of communication a common theme.

Most facilities have a communications plan.  They are required to call families informing them that they can take their family resident home.  But often families can’t, especially if they require life support equipment… feeding tubes, breathing tube, etc.

Moreover, it was a rare exception in which evacuations were well-executed

I live in Santa Paula with the Thomas fire.  They shut off our electricity.   My son is on a feeding tube/respirator.   I was holding his head to make sure he didn’t stop breathing.   Trying to move his head to help with breathing.  I have no back-up generators. I talked to FEMA, but no one could help me.  He is 190 lbs.   There was no evacuation plan or help.  I can take care of his medicines and other things, but I can’t move him.    I had no info on where to take him.

In addition to better communication and emergency planning, the greater need is for energy resilience.  It’s time to put battery storage technologies into the homes and facilities of vulnerable communities. The Clean Energy Group thinks there is a pathway: Its recent report Home Health Care in the Dark  offers suggestions for restructuring California’s experimental and underfunded Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to provide backup power for nursing facilities and home health care.  SGIP’s focus on accelerating the use of battery storage technologies with renewable (and nonrenewable) energy generation could help medically dependent families during power outages.  

The Clean Energy Group’s study also suggests changing the focus from carbon reduction to energy resilience, increasing access for non-homeowners and low-income populations, considering portable technologies, and mostly communicating with the home health care sector to access and refine the program.  

The new normal requires new strategies, new technologies and new partnerships with America’s caregivers to ensure the sick, the elderly and the most vulnerable are climate and energy resilient. Let’s be clear: power shutoffs without energy resilience strategies is still playing with fire.

Denise Fairchild is president and CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor and community groups dedicated to climate-resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic and equity outcomes.

Kim Evon proudly serves as an Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 – California’s long term care local representing 400,000 home care and nursing home workers throughout California.

This op-ed was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. 

Kyler Geoffroy's picture

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 7:01 pm GMT

"It’s time to put battery storage technologies into the homes and facilities of vulnerable communities."

Kyler, let's be clear: battery storage, as a reliable source of 120VAC electricity, is not remotely practical for homes or facilities, and even less so for vulnerable communities:

  • The cost of a system capable of powering the tiny community of Paradise, CA, for example, for more than a few hours would be astronomical
  • The most expensive component - batteries - would need to be replaced every 10-12 years.
  • An isolated microgrid powering such a community would be even more vulnerable to destruction by wildfire than PG&E's local distribution network
  • Any system of isolated microgrids would be far more likely to start a wildfire than PG&E's local transmission

 

The most cost-effective solution for providing reliable electricity to everyone in society was the system of well-regulated utilities, with well-maintained distribution, which existed 30 years ago. Then someone, somehow, thought de-regulating monopolies might be cheaper, better, or less prone to catastrophe. Obviously, they were wrong.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 17, 2019 9:11 pm GMT

Two questions, Bob:

 

The most expensive component - batteries - would need to be replaced every 10-12 years.

Is this an estimate that's assuming a constant cycling of the battery? Would the lifetime be different for batteries like this that are intended for emergencies for the described vulnerable communities and so they weren't constantly charging and discharging but more just charging to have the backup ready and then less commonly draining a bit and recharging to maintain the health of the battery/charge?

An isolated microgrid powering such a community would be even more vulnerable to destruction by wildfire than PG&E's local distribution network

Isn't the idea here not to create isolated microgrids but to create microgrids that are still attached to the greater grid, simply with the added ability to become isolated if the situation prescribes it? Because if so, that's simply adding more redundancy and would by definition not be more vulnerable to interruptions than the greater grid

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 17, 2019 11:43 pm GMT

"Would the lifetime be different for batteries like this that are intended for emergencies for the described vulnerable communities...?"

That depends on several factors, Matt:

  • The customer's tolerance for limited capacity
  • Total number of cycles
  • Exposure to temperature/moisture extremes
  • Shelf life
  • Quality of manufacture

 

After ~1000 cycles the battery in my Nissan LEAF has less than 50% of its original capacity.

"Isn't the idea here not to create isolated microgrids but to create microgrids that are still attached to the greater grid...?"

That depends on who you ask. The problem with both emergency and independent microgrids is privatization, and is analogous to the problem with charter education. Do we want a country where

  • Only rich people living in communities served by microgrids have power when the main grid goes down?
  • Utilities have even less incentive and funding to maintain transmission lines than they do now?
  • Utilities have even less capability to respond to emergencies than they have now?
  • Independent, high-voltage sources of electricity are unregulated?
  • Thousands/millions of independent sources of emissions are unregulated?

 

If American disparity of wealth wasn't pronounced enough, microgrids should move us closer to the neo-medieval ideal envisioned by Republicans, where those inside the castle walls have electricity and toss their food scraps to powerless serfs outside. We're halfway there.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 18, 2019 12:53 pm GMT

On widespread microgrids and distributed generation, I agree there's issue with access based on wealth that needs to be taken seriously-- though the EVs you bring up are a great example where earlier on in the life of the tech the rich are the ones buying into it and that the movement from those purchases will encourage the market to continue and eventually bring the prices down as technology matures. Whereas only a few years ago, Tesla's were only accessible to the ultra wealthy, today you have the Leafs, Bolts, etc. that are more accessible to the middle/upper-middle class. Surely not yet accessible to all, but we're seeing the progress there-- so who's to say this technology can't follow that same trajectory?

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 18, 2019 6:34 pm GMT

EVs (or even cars) are a luxury, Matt. Electricity is essential to get a job, to read a book, to be an educated voter, to use a computer, to charge a cellphone.

Should the rich be entitled to more reliable electricity than the poor? Again - privatizing electricity will be at the expense of those who need it most.

On January 1, 2020 new homes in California will be required to have solar panels installed on the roof, putting expensive housing $30K further out of reach for all but the state's wealthiest. That homeowners will save on their electricity bills only forces those who couldn't afford them to cross-subsidize those who could.

"Progressive" California is going backwards.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Oct 18, 2019 6:29 am GMT

There is no quick and easy solution to this problem. The right solution would be to replace overhead AC power lines with buried DC lines, but that's a massive undertaking that could take decades to complete, even if funds for doing it were available.

The default solution that PG&E has been pursuing has been improved maintenance of T&D corridors. Old, weakened power poles are replaced. Trees that might down power lines are cut, but not always promptly cleared away. Without clearing, the dead trunks and branches littering the ground can become fire hazards in their own right. It's at best an ugly solution, not cheap, and not 100% effective in avoiding fires started by downed lines. PG&E has been unable to move quickly enough on this approach to avoid the need for "preventive blackouts" when dry windy conditions threaten.

Microgrids are no panacea either. What you'd need to do is to divvy up the distribution network into pieces that would be labeled microgrids. Each microgrid would need to have a transfer switch to isolate it from the rest of the grid and a backup generator to supply power when the grid was down. But that's a lot of new diesel backup generators that would be needed. Battery banks wouldn't cut it. The cost of batteries to supply power for more than a few hours is prohibitive. High wind and fire hazard conditions can persist for days or even weeks. Even after the threatening conditions have passed, it's unsafe to restore power to disabled sections of the grid until crews have confirmed that all lines are intact.

If I were younger and still working for a tech company interested in such things, there are technical fixes I'd be suggesting. I can think of ways to instantly detect when a line has been severed. Power could be shut off before the severed line hit the ground. That would avoid the need for preventive blackouts, but the detection hardware and signaling system would have to be developed. I don't know of any off-the-shelf products that would do the job. If they existed, I'd expect PG&E to already have deployed them.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Oct 18, 2019 5:41 pm GMT

 PG&E has been unable to move quickly enough on this approach to avoid the need for "preventive blackouts" when dry windy conditions threaten.

Just an FYI - 

PG&E stated in court filings this year that they didn't know the age of their transmission lines. I am guessing this also applies to poles.

Based on the recent power shutdown it is also clear that PG&E - at least some of their systems - doesn't know which lines serve which streets and/or buildings. Even for major customers.

Basics.

Works also need to be done to better "isolate" fire-prone areas.  Would be interested in hearing how many customers lost power even though they were not considered to be in fire-prone area.

 

 

 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Oct 18, 2019 6:31 pm GMT

Good points, Joe. I didn't know that PG&E's state of knowledge about their own system was that bad. Incredible! Something so basic...

Regarding customers being in fire-prone areas, I don't think the issue with these preventive blackouts is the fire risk of the customer's immediate area. Rather it's that of the areas through which the power feed-in lines pass. That can be quite some distance away.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 18, 2019 8:57 pm GMT

Good points, Joe. I didn't know that PG&E's state of knowledge about their own system was that bad. Incredible! Something so basic...

Makes you realize how much mismanagement has gotten PG&E to this point. Unfortunately, doing a post mortum on the organization doesn't do much to go back and right the wrongs that affected so many people. Hopefully some lessons learned and improvement elsewhere in the sector can come from this, though

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Oct 22, 2019 4:52 pm GMT

Regarding customers being in fire-prone areas, I don't think the issue with these preventive blackouts is the fire risk of the customer's immediate area. Rather it's that of the areas through which the power feed-in lines pass. That can be quite some distance away.

Roger - Agreed. I was actually saying this because work should be done to ease this problem... either through strategically placed storage or eliminating "single source transmission" areas as much as possible.

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