JUICE: Fire & Good Beer

By Published On: May 22, 2014

A squadron of helicopters shuttled back and forth between the ocean and a towering plume of fire and smoke a few miles east of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. They scooped up water in buckets and dropped it on the raging wildfire May 16. As I drove south on Interstate 5, mid-afternoon traffic was snarled in the 96 degree heat. Traffic cleared and soon I was headed east on Route 78 through the heart of last week’s wildfires that burned some 32,000 acres in the north San Diego County communities of Carlsbad, San Marcos, Escondido, and Camp Pendleton. The blazes were largely out, but freeway exits remained closed, so I crept along again. When I finally got out of the car, the air was hot, dry, and smoky. Alas, I entered the cool air-conditioned indoors at Stone Brewing in Escondido—which had been evacuated the day before. I realized this is the future. It is forcing big changes for electric utilities and everybody else in Southern California. Climate change is expected to bring increasingly devilish weather extremes—be they Santa Ana conditions in spring, droughts that run years, floods as water that once fell as snow now falls as rain, storm surges that erode coasts and flood low-lying power plants near the beach, and all that comes with it. Even Gov. Jerry Brown said over the weekend on public affairs talk shows that climate change likely was at the root of last week’s fires and hot weather during a time Southern Californians usually see “May Gray,” then “June Gloom.” “We are ahead of the curve,” insisted Brown, “but as that curve of dryness and fire, disasters continues to escalate, we are going to have to deploy more resources.” Brown said that he already has signed a bill to provide $600 million for firefighting and that the amount would grow in the years ahead. The problem, he noted, is that the state’s fire season is lengthening. It’s about 70 days longer on average over the last decade or two, according to the governor. As weather forecasters warned of last week’s heat and Santa Ana winds, utilities and firefighters swung into preparative action. Utilities implemented demand-response programs to cut peak load. San Diego Gas & Electric turned off power to many homes in the back country where fire danger lurks whenever the Santa Ana devil winds blow. Firefighting agencies pre-positioned crews and activated mutual aid agreements, conveying out-of-area personnel and equipment to help protect life and property. But it was just the beginning. The impacts of climate change are heightened by the growth and building patterns in Southern California, where developers have covered the wind-prone hillsides and canyons that have long been no strangers to wildfires with housing, stores, and workplaces. Transmission lines, substations, and distribution lines increasingly crisscross these fire-prone areas to make sure that residents enjoy the conveniences of electricity. Yet, that infrastructure is ever-more vulnerable to coming down during severe windstorms and sparking walls of fire that become almost unstoppable. To get a taste of how extreme weather scientists say you can expect more of due to climate change climate change is affecting the grid here’s some recent history: • In 2013, the Rim Fire in Yosemite burned 300 square miles and forced the shutdown of 283 MW of hydropower dams at Hetch Hetchy; • In 2011, hurricane-force winds in winter blew down trees and power poles in Southern California Edison and Los Angeles Department of Water & Power territory, leaving more than 650,000 customers in the dark for days due to the extensive damage; • In 2010, wildfires put two major transmission lines out of service, including two of three lines on Path 26 in Lebec in Kern County and a 230 kV line near Mount Diablo in the East San Francisco Bay area; • In 2007, Southern California Edison poles broke and fell amid heavy Santa Ana winds, igniting a fire that burned 3,836 acres in Malibu Canyon and destroyed 14 structures, 36 vehicles, plus damaged 19 other structures; and • That same year, downed San Diego Gas & Electric lines played a role in sparking wildfires that killed 17, destroyed thousands of structures, and burned 780 square miles. This list could go on. But, the 2007 fires alone were enough to get the California Public Utilities Commission to adopt sweeping new rules to require stronger poles and more emphasis on tree trimming and brush clearance around utility lines. The rules also require many other steps to lessen the danger of both fires and power outages. Municipal utilities are following suit. Just last week, for instance, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District announced that it had thinned forest due to fire danger around the planned site of its Iowa Hill pumped storage facility. It all adds up to higher rates for customers, fines for shareholders, stiffer insurance bills, and lawsuits with untold liabilities for the state’s utilities. Power prices also soar when transmission lines are sidelined, as utilities must turn to the more expensive spot market for juice when they can’t get it from their customary sources. And we’re only at the cusp of the climate changes that scientists forecast. Climate scientists and engineers are just beginning to study what may be needed to armor the energy infrastructure against these weather threats in a warmer world and what it may cost. Last week signals that our devilish future has arrived and the costs are beginning to mount. Meanwhile, the beer’s sure good at Stone if you manage to get through the smoke.

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