Eleven months ago a fire ignited outside Pulga California, it raced across the mountains, and by the end of the day the city of Paradise California (and neighboring cities) had been largely destroyed, with several deaths (85 confirmed deaths and one still listed as missing as of September 2019) of those caught in the fire. Two years ago a wildfire ignited in the hills between Santa Rosa California and Napa Valley, which then roared into Santa Rosa destroying a large swath of that city. The commonality is that PG&E, the primary electric utility for Northern California, had done a piss-poor job of maintaining its power lines. That, and the ultra-dry vegetation in the area, made for some of the largest and most costly wildfires in California’s history.
This week the big news in the area has PG&E doing a “proactive” shutdown of parts of the electricity grid. They noted a weather pattern this week with the potential to spark another wildfire, and have shut off the electricity grid so that downed power lines cannot possibly be the cause yet another wildfire. That’s left hundreds of thousands of people in California without electricity, and many are turning to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor to grumble and complain.
This situation raises several questions for us to consider:
- How can PG&E avoid igniting more wildfires?
- Can we avoid wildfires that are a predicted consequence of climate change?
- How can electric vehicle charging, or our cities in general, keep running if the electricity grid goes out?
- What happens if our society cannot afford to maintain the infrastructure built by earlier generations?
Reviewing conditions leading to city-destroying wildfires
It seems my neighbors have forgotten why PG&E is shutting down electricity service, so let’s review a little. In November 2018 there were two large wildfires in California, the so-called Camp Fire in Butte County mentioned above, and another in Southern California. The Camp Fire destroyed Paradise CA, and was sparked by an electricity transmission line about 2 miles from Pulga. The terrain there is extremely rugged (I’ve driven on that road and know it well) and the electricity lines date from about 100 years ago.
The Wikipedia on the Camp Fire says the terrain is so rugged, and the access road so narrow, fire crews were unable to get their vehicles to the fire. This may be referring to the road leading north from Pulga (Camp Creek Road), which is at best 1 1/2 lanes wide. In any case, on the morning of November 8, 2018, the area had hot winds and at 6:15 AM a PG&E power line failed. By 6:33 AM PG&E and CalTrans crews that happened to be in the area reported a fire to CalFire, near the Poe Dam just up-river from Pulga. At 6:44 AM the fire had grown to 10 acres. Shortly afterward a CalFire unit arrived on the scene, and called in for additional support. By 7 AM the fire had spread all the way to Concow (about 5 miles, across a mountain range), and by 8 AM the fire reached Paradise (about 15 miles). That indicates how quickly the fire spread, thanks to the wind and the dry vegetation.
The weather in that period had been hot and windy, drying out the already dry vegetation. On the morning of the fire there was a strong wind blowing down the Feather River canyon, coming from the east, further drying things out. The gusting wind caused the power lines to fail providing the sparks to ignite the dry vegetation. It’s been reported that PG&E did very little maintenance on those lines.
According to the Wikipedia page for the Tubbs Fire, the conditions leading to the Santa Rosa fire were similar. That fire was on October 8, 2017, and involved hot and windy conditions, exploding transformers, and downed power lines. While, CalFire (California’s fire agency) cleared PG&E of responsibility there is a lawsuit underway against PG&E.
Utility companies planned ahead
Before the fire that destroyed Paradise, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the utility companies were already planning how to manage electrical grid shutdowns to avoid disasters. The idea was to monitor weather conditions, and if warranted to shut down the grid.
If a de-energized power line falls down, it cannot provide sparks to ignite the vegetation.
Since November 2018, planning continued almost certainly with more urgency. This week’s power outage is a result of that planning.
California’s wildfires are a climate change story
As noted at the time, this is a climate change story.
Over the last 10 years California’s weather pattern has been very different than the past. In the past, in the SF Bay Area, the “winter” would be “cold” and rainy. The words “winter” and “cold” are in quotes because those living elsewhere would scoff at how we use those words. The only time it rains is in the “winter” (meaning the months between November and April). In the mountains that rain appears instead as snow. For example the ski slopes in the Lake Tahoe area are there because of this snow.
But over the last 10 years the “winters” have been more mild than normal, and more importantly less rain than normal. A lot less rain than normal. A couple years ago everyone in California was worried about The Drought and that water levels in California’s reservoirs was falling dangerously low. That drought was because winter-time rain was a lot less than normal.
Coincidentally, or not, over the last 10 years California has suffered its worst wildfires in history. The fire which destroyed part of Santa Rosa was the largest wildfire in California’s history, until the wildfire that destroyed Paradise surpassed that fire.
The other affect of this drought was that forests did not have enough water to sustain themselves, and instead became dry tinderboxes. Another affect was that orchards in the Central Valley dried out leaving behind dry tree carcasses.
Forests with dry vegetation, with trees and other plants dying because there’s no water, with trees weakened by bug infestations, are a wildfire waiting to happen.
California’s wildfires are a symptom of PG&E’s deferred maintenance
It’s been widely reported that PG&E has done very little maintenance of its infrastructure.
For example in September 2010, a PG&E natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno destroying several homes. The cause was found to be badly welded pipelines and lax maintenance. Because of that explosion PG&E has been testing and replacing pipelines all through the SF Bay Area, in other words performing the maintenance PG&E had neglected to do in previous years.
The fires mentioned above are reportedly also due to lax maintenance of electricity transmission lines. Having driven the road where the Camp Fire ignited, I know how rugged the terrain is, and how the towers holding those transmissions are barely hanging onto the mountain. But that’s no excuse, PG&E owns those lines and to operate them safely needs to do required maintenance.
Lax maintenance of such equipment is obviously causing disasters.
What happens to EV Charging and to Gas Stations if the electricity grid fails?
Obviously a failed risk to electric car drivers is what do we do if the electricity grid fails. How can we charge our cars?
A less recognized risk is that gasoline car drivers will be just as stuck. Gas pumps at gas stations don’t work without electricity. Likewise the credit card machines don’t work, so even if the gas pump were to miraculously work the gas station couldn’t charge for the gasoline.
There is one possible response – to station solar panels and/or energy storage systems at EV charging and gas station facilities.
Tesla’s response to disaster: Claim to be moving forward with plan originally tied to The Zombie Apocalypse
Back in 2013 when the Supercharger network was a New Thing, Elon Musk posted one of his inscrutable Twitter posts talking about how the Supercharger network would survive the Zombie Apocalypse.
The Zombie Apocalypse is a popular conversational meme. Climate change is a real world thing. Climate change is apparently the driver behind a series of real world extreme weather events from hurricanes to tornadoes to the conditions that spark massive wildfires. California isn’t experiencing a Zombie Apocalypse this fall, but it is experiencing something related to climate change.
Tesla’s Zombie Apocalypse Survival Plan was to equip every Supercharger facility with a combination of solar panels and/or energy storage systems. This would give Supercharger stations the electricity needed to keep running even if the electricity grid shuts down.
So… here we are, parts of the electricity grid in Northern California is indeed shut down. And Tesla is telling us the company is installing energy storage systems as soon as they get the permits, and the goal is to install solar power as soon as possible.
Remember this promise was made in 2013. Tesla still hasn’t delivered on the promise in a meaningful way.
Except, that’s not really fair to Tesla. There is a cost issue.
At the Supercharger locations I’ve visited, there are energy storage units that support maybe 500 kiloWatt-hours up to 1 megaWatt-hour of energy storage. That’s enough energy storage to fully recharge a handful of cars. None I’ve seen have a solar array at all.
At 70 kiloWatt-hours delivered per car, how many cars can be charged from a 1 megaWatt-hour energy storage system? That’s roughly 12-13 cars.
In other words, how large of an energy storage system is required to keep a Supercharger location running for a few days of power outage?
Likewise, how large of a solar array is required to supply enough power to a single Supercharger location to keep the energy storage system powered if the electricity grid goes down?
We don’t have to estimate the actual values to recognize that the answer to both questions is “LARGE”.
Then, how many Supercharger locations are required for a large metropolitan area. And, to live by the promised Zombie Apocalypse Survival Plan, therefore Tesla would have to install LARGE solar arrays and energy storage systems at several Supercharger facilities for each area where the company is operating.
The cost for that quickly adds up. Remember that Tesla barely survived the last couple years, due to the financial crunch related to ramping up production of the Tesla Model 3.
Like always Tesla thought ahead and saw the potential for solar power to keep things running. But the cost for implementing that idea is large enough to prohibit Tesla from having implemented the idea.
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