Electricity and Ideology – Competing Priorities in California

By Edward Ring
October 22, 2019

“If I wanted the power shut off for days by bloated, corrupt utilities enabled by bloated, corrupt one-party politicians,” quipped Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco attorney and prominent conservative political activist, “I would have stayed in India.”

Dhillon’s observation pretty much sums up the frustration felt by millions of Californians last week. In Northern California, nearly 800,000 homes and businesses went without power. Some of them had power shut off for five days. In Southern California, even as the Saddleridge fire raged through neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, another 25,000 homes had their power shut off.

But while it’s tempting to accept Dhillon’s statement at face value, the causes of California’s wildfire challenges are many and complex.

For example, while any public utility as massive as Pacific Gas and Electric is bound to have pockets of bloat and corruption within, that isn’t the reason Californians experienced devastating wildfires in the summer of 2018. And while California’s one-party politicians have arguably enabled PG&E and other utilities by relieving them of a portion of their liability for wildfires, these same politicians have saddled PG&E with renewables mandates that diverted billions of dollars which could have been spent on wildfire mitigation.

Bureaucrats and politicians have used a shopworn phrase, “the new normal,” to describe California’s supposed future of endless and devastating wildfires. Last week we heard it again, this time in reference to massive power outages deliberately imposed to prevent these wildfires. But neither of these have to become normal. While none of the causes of devastating wildfires can be mitigated overnight, there are many steps that can reduce their frequency and intensity within a few years.

Why Were California’s Wildfires So Devastating?

During the 2018 wildfires, Californians repeatedly were told that “climate change” was the primary cause, and that as a consequence, these fires would become a fact of life from then on. It’s true that fire danger is elevated during droughts and heatwaves—and therefore “climate change” can be connected to more severe wildfires. But there are other, bigger factors. The most significant of these is decades of aggressive fire suppression.

In the natural forest and chaparral that defines most of California’s fire-prone regions, natural fires sparked by lightning had been a part of the ecosystem for millennia. In mature forests, these fires periodically would sweep through to burn out the smaller trees and vegetation. This not only would reduce tinder that otherwise would accumulate, but the removal of these smaller trees and shrubs that competed with mature trees for water and nutrients would ensure the health of the larger trees. When ecologists claim California’s trees are stressed, they’re right, but when California’s politicians echo these concerns, they opportunistically focus on climate change, instead of telling the truth about the role that aggressive fire suppression has played in undermining the health of these trees.

Opinions vary regarding how much of the conflagrations of 2018 could have been avoided, but nobody disputes that more could have been done. Everyone agrees, for example, that aggressive fire suppression has been a mistake. Most everyone agrees that good prevention measures include forest thinning (especially around power lines), selective logging, controlled burns, and power line upgrades. And everyone agrees that residents in fire-prone areas need to create defensible space and fire-harden their homes.

Opinions also vary as to whether or not environmentalists stood in the way of these prevention measures. In a blistering critique published in the aftermath of the fires of 2018, investigative journalist Katy Grimes cataloged the negligence resulting from environmentalist overreach.

“For decades,” Grimes wrote, “traditional forest management was scientific and successful—that is until ideological, preservationist zealots wormed their way into government and began the overhaul of sound federal forest management through abuse of the Endangered Species Act and the ‘re-wilding, no-use movement.’”

U.S. Representative Tom McClintock, whose Northern California district includes the Yosemite Valley and the Tahoe National Forest, told Grimes that the U.S. Forest Service 40 years ago departed from “well-established and time-tested forest management practices.”

“We replaced these sound management practices with what can only be described as a doctrine of benign neglect,” McClintock explained. “Ponderous, byzantine laws and regulations administered by a growing cadre of ideological zealots in our land management agencies promised to ‘save the environment.’ The advocates of this doctrine have dominated our law, our policies, our courts, and our federal agencies ever since.”

Grimes went on to outline the specific missteps by federal authorities that led to America’s forests turning into tinderboxes, starting in the Clinton Administration, made worse by activist judges who thwarted Bush Administration reforms, and accelerating during the complicit Obama presidency.

California’s 2018 wildfires were unusually severe, but they were not historic firsts. And while the four-year drought that ended in 2016 left a legacy of dead trees and brush, it was forest mismanagement that left those forests overly vulnerable to droughts in the first place.

Reducing the Destructive Impact of Wildfires Won’t Be Easy

When the destruction caused by fires is measured, explanations typically include the reality of more people living in forested areas. Clearly, the human and financial harm from a wildfire is greater when people are living in its path. But another, less-heralded consequence of more people living in the so-called “wildland-urban interface” is that compared to trees in the forest, wind driven wildfires actually combust and spread faster when encountering homes, and the infrastructure associated with homes.

This is why, for example, in the devastating Paradise fire, there were photographs of the aftermath showing homes burned down to their foundations, while adjacent trees remained standing relatively intact. None of the potential solutions to this reality are easy. Hardening homes to resist ignition works best when wind-driven embers hitting roofs and eaves are the cause of the spread. But when a so-called fire tornado whips into homes at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees and at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, it is almost impossible to make a home fire-resistant.

Creating defensible space, along with hardening homes, is an effective defense against wildfires when they don’t become cataclysmic super fires such as were seen in the summer of 2018. Even then, natural fires have to be allowed to burn, regularly reducing excess tinder, or teams have to go into the forest and remove all of it. Alternatively, controlled burns regularly have to be set to in the hope that they will remove tinder in a safer and more cost-effective manner.

An encouraging example of how a consensus is slowly forming to revise forest management came a few years ago from a spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund, who advocated for more salvage logging to reduce the intensity of future fires. Arguing that years of fire suppression made it impossible to “let nature heal itself,” the writer proposed the Forest Service authorize “merchantable dead tree removal [which] will contribute revenue that then can be used for recovery efforts including tree planting.”

This approach can work not only with dead trees but with healthy live trees. Expediting permits for property owners and logging companies to remove a percentage of commercially valuable mature trees in exchange for them also removing dead trees and dense undergrowth is a financially viable way to quickly restore forests to the state they were in prior to decades of aggressive fire suppression. If this were done, natural fires no longer would be as likely to become super fires. Salvage logging would also make it easier to manage “controlled burns” since the quantity of undergrowth already would be reduced.

Preventing Fires Sparked by Transmission Lines

Some of the most devastating fires of the past few years were caused by sparks from transmission lines. Directing public funds and a portion of ratepayer revenue to hardening transmission lines is an important priority, but should be subject to cost/benefit analysis. Burying high voltage lines, for example, costs $3 million per mile. With more than 25,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines in California, burying all of them would cost $75 billion.

That’s just scratching the surface. California also has 160,000 miles of overhead distribution lines which, while carrying lower voltages, are still capable of sparking fires. To bury them all? Over a half-trillion dollars.

And burying power lines underground brings its own set of problems. Maintenance of underground power conduits is much more costly. They are susceptible to flooding, damage from rodents, earthquakes, and inadvertent disruption caused by new construction or maintenance of other conduits such as telecommunications fiber or water and gas mains.

Another way to reduce the potential for overhead power lines to spark wildfires is to wrap the wires with insulation, replace wood poles with composite ones, and install covered conductorsAdditional steps include installing “fast-acting fuses, advanced lightning arrestors, and other devices that can react more quickly to minimize fire risks.”

Finally, cutting off power when high winds and high temperatures greatly elevate fire risk should remain an option for utilities, but the process needs to be refined. The headline of an article just published by the Los Angeles Times says it all: “PG&E’s blackouts were ‘not surgical by any stretch.’” The story explains the distinction between “networked” distribution systems, where power can be routed over several paths of distribution lines and circuits, and “radial” systems, where lone power lines carry power into service areas.

The advantage of a networked system is that if high winds and hot weather are threatening to spark a fire around one section of the system, that line can be shut down but power can still reach all service areas using other routes, maintaining service everywhere.

While reducing or even eliminating wildfires sparked by transmission lines is a worthy goal, that focus must not distract policymakers from more comprehensive solutions. Even if all risks from power lines were eliminated, wildfires will still be sparked by lightning strikes as well as by other types of human-caused accidents. Forest thinning and controlled burns are necessary to ensure that when fires do start, they are lower-intensity fires. At the same time, homes in the urban-wildland interface need to be hardened against combustion, with defensible space around them, so low-intensity fires are a survivable threat.

Energy Policy and Wildfire Management Are Interlinked

PG&E deserves much criticism, but it is important to recognize that no other utility in California is responsible for providing service to nearly as much territory. It is relatively easy for municipal power utilities to maintain their service areas, since their customer base is in a densely populated area. PG&E, on the other hand, is responsible for providing service to customers spread out over 70,000 square miles. Converting a grid from a radial configuration to a networked configuration over territory that vast is far more difficult.

No discussion of how utilities should cope with wildfire risk is complete without considering the impact of renewables mandates. The expense that utilities incur to extend their distribution lines to far-flung solar and wind farms across the state is money that could be used to upgrade transmission lines, pay for networked distribution systems, and where most necessary, bury transmission lines. And the increased mileage of transmission lines necessitated by connecting to disbursed solar and wind farms not only means more potential fire hazards but because these intermittent power sources have to be balanced continuously, it means more electrical traffic on the grid.

The only potential upside of renewables mandates is the possibility that if cost-effective power storage is developed at scale—i.e., cheap and affordable battery systems with capacities measured in hundreds of megawatt-hours per unit, then grid electricity can be distributed and stored. This would permit uninterrupted power whenever transmission lines delivering power into an area is cut off, since the power stored in these batteries would pick up the slack.

In general, however, renewables mandates in California redirect utility resources away from safety, and into technologies that may soon be obsolete. Do we really want to construct a 2.3 gigawatt-hour electricity storage facility at Moss Landing, on California’s Central Coast, using lithium-ion technology, when solid-state batteries may be a reality within the next 10 years? Should we really carpet the Mojave Desert with photovoltaic panels, when safe and cost-effective fission reactors are being constructed all over the world, and commercially viable fusion power could be here within the next 20 to 30 years?

It would be a tremendous setback if the consequence of devastating wildfires in recent years would be prohibitions on new housing in the urban-wildland interface. Using “climate change” as their rallying cry, that is the solution according to some policymakers and activists. But denying to all but the wealthiest Californians a chance to live in rural areas is a cruel and regressive solution. It is particularly unwarranted if one recognizes that “climate change” has little to do with elevated fire risks and more intense fires.

Instead, Californians need to pursue an interlinked set of solutions to minimize risk. Property owners need to harden their structures against fires and create defensible space. Forest management practices need to embrace selective logging conditional on the removal of undergrowth. Utilities need to invest in transmission line upgrades and networked systems. And California’s determination to pour hundreds of billions into implementing renewables needs to be examined not only against the obvious pitfall of likely obsolescence but against the costs and benefits of that course versus building a safe and reliable power grid that can meet the needs and expectations of residents in the 21st century.

 *   *   *

Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

MORE GREAT ARTICLES