Blog Post

Dark Summer

California utilities and their customers have shared an unspoken agreement for years: customers pay the rates and fees the utilities have convinced the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) they need to keep the lights on – and reward their investors – while the utilities ensure customers can flip a switch to keep the lights on. For most customers, power outages have been limited and quickly fixed.

This agreement just ended.

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) notified customers they will turn off power to fire-prone areas during windy or hot days as a safety precaution. These “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” (PSPS), or “de-energization,” will last as long and occur as often as necessary throughout the 2019 wildfire season. They could impact tens of thousands of customers for days or weeks—and with no long-term solution identified.

The first shutoffs came Saturday, as KQED reported that PG&E cut power to more than 22,700 customers in eight counties northeast of San Francisco. The Los Angeles Times reported that shutoffs could impact “anyone on the grid,” and that PG&E warned it “could plunge San Francisco into the dark.”

And we’re just at the start of “fire season.”

The CPUC voted last Thursday on rules for the shutoffs. There’s no argument that they should have approved them from a fire safety perspective as a first line of defense—but the approval should have come with conditions that support longer-term solutions beyond “de-energizing” and shutting off the lights. The CPUC should mandate and incentivize the adoption of distributed, customer-sited non-hazardous energy storage and renewable power in order to live up to its own mandate to provide “safe, reliable utility services… promoting the health of California’s economy.” Small and large customer-sited energy storage, renewable generation and microgrids along the entire distribution grid that can generate, store and ‘island’ power when the utility initiates a “Public Safety Power Shutoff”, is a proven model for building in resilience and energy security.

Wildfire frequency, destruction and associated power outages have reached an all-time high. California suffered 7,571 wildfires in 2018, and more than 9,000 in 2017. Fires caused by electrical facilities and centralized transmission have killed more than 130 people and burned more than 20,000 homes in just the past two years, and sparked more than 2,000 fires over four years (Governor Newsom’s Strike Force Report 2019). These fires shut parts of the state’s electrical grid down for hours, days or weeks. PG&E has sought bankruptcy protection, citing thousands of claims from the fires.

No one questions that utilities might need to cut power if a wildfire looms in territories ravaged by years of drought, flush with new growth from record rains and increasingly violent winds. Welcome to the world of climate crisis. What is less well known is that approximately 25% of California’s population—11 million people—live in “High Fire Threat Districts” (HFTD).

But it’s difficult to estimate the implications of whole communities going dark for days on end. Shutting down the grid could be catastrophic for California in of itself, the world’s 5th largest economy, and add to the devastation and losses of the fires. The press understands the enormity of what could happen: the Wall Street Journal referred to PG&E’s “radical plan.” Bloomberg News warned that Californians are not prepared.

What’s being done to reduce the risk, and to prevent fires and shutdowns in the future?

PG&E, SCE, and SDG&E have invested in public awareness campaigns. KQED clarified CPUC rules outlining when utilities can act on fire danger and how they must let customers know. PG&E posted a full-page ad warning about the Public Safety Power Shutoffs. However, the campaign, now dubbed ‘The Power of Being Prepared’ might cause residents to ask: Are the CPUC and the utilities doing all they can?

In 2019, is it necessary—or safe—for whole communities to go without power for days or weeks? At this moment, we have no choice. But it didn’t have to be this way. The CPUC identified the “High Fire Threat Districts” and the 11 million residents that lived in these districts back in January, 2018. Surely, a plan beyond the mandated utility-driven “Public Safety Power Shutoffs”, as a second line of defense in the face of impending fires, could have been developed by now. The utilities need to support and invest in state-of-the-art, long-term solutions that are already being deployed all over the world: customer sited energy storage, solar and microgrids.

Back in January, CPUC President Michael Picker testified at a state Assembly hearing about the increasing wildfire threat due to climate change: “I don’t think we are prepared for, in any way here in the state of California, for the enormity that we’re seeing. We need more thinking. We need more ideas.”

The ideas Mr. Picker needs are already being implemented all over California, thanks in large part to local companies that are among the most innovative on the planet. At SimpliPhi Power, for example, we’re installing cutting edge distributed energy storage and renewable generation systems all over the world – including at former Gov. Jerry Brown’s home. The integrated microgrid that we have worked on with our partners at Stone Edge Farm continued to operate and serve as a base for 300 firefighters throughout the Sonoma Fire in 2017. Such microgrids and localized, customer-sited power generation and energy storage are protecting people, schools, clinics and businesses from the very risks that Californians now face, both “power shutoffs” and fires. SimpliPhi’s energy storage solutions work with and integrate any power source, ranging from utilities, to solar, wind, back-up generators, or a combination. These technologies help Californians and our utilities enjoy “safe, reliable” and clean power. They also help mitigate the climate crisis that has spawned California’s wildfire emergency.

The CPUC and utilities should develop and adopt proactive programs to access such technologies, in addition to advising residents to develop a “personal action plan” and “stock up on” food, water and medical supplies. “If you have a generator,” they advise, “make sure it’s operational and that you have extra fuel on hand.”

Such rudimentary guidance doesn’t address the full impact of blackouts that could stretch on for days. They don’t suggest where you might obtain fuel after an extended outage. They don’t suggest how large population centers might manage the potential scarce supply of food, medicine, cooling, and transportation. Will businesses and schools shut down? Will workers be sent home with or without pay? What can people do who rely on breathing assistance machines or other medical devices? It all focuses the mind on how dependent we have become on centralized power, and whether that’s the most “safe, reliable” option for us, our future and – now that PG&E is in bankruptcy – even for our utilities.

It’s time for a proven remedy: distributed energy storage and renewable generation. Fossil fuels have been subsidized with billions for decades. Yet California played a leadership role in forming the US Climate Alliance, with dozens of states and cities vowing to fulfill the US commitment to the Paris Agreement‘s Sustainability Goals. This requires reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

Accelerating the shift to distributed energy storage and renewable generation would help achieve these goals, while better protecting our communities, businesses and future. In addition, streamlining the multiple rules and paperwork that effectively block interconnection agreements for distributed assets, such as batteries and solar, could help minimize destructive power shut downs and provide the “safe, reliable” electricity, “promoting the health of California’s economy”, that is at the core of the CPUC mission.

California has always been a center for innovation and resilience. We’ve led a global technology revolution and we’re leading the fight to curb climate change. I believe we also have the power to lead the transition to a new model of distributed energy. With the wildfire season now upon us, we certainly have the motivation.

Catherine Von Burg is the CEO & President of SimpliPhi Power, Inc, a California company that designs and manufacturers efficient, non-toxic energy storage and management systems that empower people and communities globally.