Blog Post

Letter From the CEO: Public Safety, DER’s & Wildfires

No doubt, 2020 was a tough year.  For people, for the planet, for the economy.  Globally, we have witnessed the multiplier effect of COVID-19 on the inequities hard-baked into our social infrastructure, accelerating enormous social, political, ecological, and financial hardship.  And despite all our hopes and aspirations for relief in 2021, we are still in the grips of the pandemic and all its societal comorbidities.

Globally, climate change threatens to serve as an accelerant to these social, political, and economic threats.  Climate change already impacts millions of Americans daily, putting lives at risk; forcing people from their homes, businesses and communities; destroying critical infrastructure and costing billions of dollars in losses.

In 2020, the United States experienced a record-breaking 22 weather-related disasters that each resulted in at least $1 billion in damages. Millions have lost their homes, creating tens of thousands of climate refugees across the country, something unthinkable in America just a decade ago.

These dramatic impacts of climate change are on full display in California each year as drought, extreme wind, and abnormally high temperatures collide and accelerate an ever-worsening wildfire crisis.

California: Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS)

CA was on fire in 2020.  Now in May 2021, rainfall is at an estimated all-time low and nearly 80% of the state is experiencing extended drought conditions. Arid conditions turn vegetation into tinder, increasing the likelihood of wildfires and enabling more rapid spread once sparked.

In California, utilities and regulators have turned to a blunt instrument in hopes of preventing utility infrastructure from causing additional fires known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) – where power is turned off intentionally when weather conditions are optimal for igniting fires.

And while much attention is paid to the role utilities play in sparking these wildfires, which is the justification for these planned shutoffs, the truth is that utility infrastructure only causes a small fraction of the annual wildfires year over year in CA.  This is a critical point that needs to be considered in the discussion as to what really creates ‘public safety’ when it comes to wildfires and preventing them.

Two judges – one from PG&E’s criminal proceedings, and one from its bankruptcy – recently drew more attention to controversial PSPS events. Judge Alsup has proposed that PG&E expand the use of PSPS to avoid further criminal liability from utility infrastructure causing fires, and Judge Montali has ruled that PG&E isn’t liable from the damages and threat to public safety caused by these forced outages. Taken together – the call for more PSPS and indemnification from their impacts – we can expect many more PSPS events going forward from utilities in CA.

The problem is, PSPS really do not prevent wildfires in CA, nor do they protect public safety, which is the claim being perpetuated as the reason behind them (notwithstanding Judge Alsup). 

In 2020, fires caused by extreme heat, drought, and wind – the lethal combination of ‘natural’ or environmental conditions cited by utilities that trigger a PSPS event – caused approximately 9,900 wildfires.  By contrast, fires sparked by utility infrastructure is estimated to be approximately 800 fires, with only 25 PSPS events in total for the year.  Yet this small number of 25 PSPS events, that hardly made a difference in preventing the estimated 800 utility-based fires, cost the state billions in economic losses. 

Is this really achieving public safety given the disastrous economic losses during a utility power shut-off (PSPS) and the growing numbers of climate-induced fires? In the final analysis, these PSPS events hardly addressed the 9,900+ total fires in 2020, much less the estimated 800 utility-sparked fires.  Given these numbers, are PSPS events really creating public safety, much less preventing wildfires?

The actual root cause of rapidly increasing wildfires in CA (+25% YOY) is the impacts of rising CO2 levels and the lethal combination of extreme heat, wind and drought, the result of climate change. It is consistently hotter and drier throughout the Western US, and fire season now starts much earlier and lasts longer than previous years.  CA has already suffered through more than 2,000 wildfires in 2021.

Utility PSPS are not a solution to CA’s wildfire problem. As Judge Alsup pointed out, the main driver for PSPS is to reduce utility criminal liability.

The Solution: Distributed Customer-Sited Energy Storage & Rooftop Solar

To have a meaningful impact on California’s 10,000+ wildfires each year, we must employ strategies that face the root causes of wildfires (climate change) head on.

The way to protect homes and businesses from utilities’ increasingly liberal use of PSPS events, that effectively serve their interests – at the expense of Californians – is to provide resilient distributed backup batteries and solar generation at the customer site.  Distributed energy storage is the only way to safeguard the interests of utility customers to get through these frequent, extended planned outages. This strategy also reduces CO2 levels, the root cause behind increasing heat, drought and wind and the ensuing wildfire disasters in the state.

Thankfully, both strategies can be pursued simultaneously through the widespread adoption of customer-sited solar + energy storage systems installed in homes and businesses across the state.

Rooftop solar power augments the central electric grid and offsets a customer’s demand for more carbon-intensive power. Solar customers also gain some energy independence and control over their energy use decisions.

But in order to ensure utility line worker safety, solar systems alone that are directly tied to the electric grid won’t operate during grid outages. Solar arrays go down when the grid goes down.

However, when paired with an energy storage system – like SimpliPhi Power’s industry-leading safe lithium ferro phosphate batteries – homeowners and businesses gain critical backup power reserves and unlock additional value with their solar panels, generating electricity even when grid power is unavailable. Customer-sited batteries also solve the ‘duck curve,’ excess solar generation feeding into the grid during the day, further benefiting the utility and customers alike.

Buildings equipped with solar+ storage protect utility customers from the impacts of PSPS events while also reducing carbon emissions – tackling the root cause of wildfires in the state while mitigating the financial losses of frequent planned utility outages (again, in the billions of dollars).

Innovations in distributed energy storage, combined with renewable generation and software that can control and monitor customer-sited assets, for the customer and the utility, are readily available solutions that can, and already do, protect Californians from increasing PSPS outages. These solutions also play a significant role in offsetting infrastructure upgrades, indefinitely deferring the billions needed to adequately improve and ‘harden’ the grid.

On top of all these direct benefits, the rapidly growing solar + storage industry in California is producing good-paying jobs and economic benefits for the state. The California Solar and Storage Association (CALSSA) released a comprehensive report demonstrating the significant economic benefits of expanding solar in the state, including 60 full-time jobs for each megawatt of solar installed (and more than 1,200 MW’s were installed in 2019 alone).

California’s wildfire crisis is worsening as climate change continues largely unabated. We need aggressive action to reduce emissions rapidly, and the protectionist utility PSPS events are going to increase in coming years as drought conditions become even more severe. Recognizing the judgement put forth by Judge Alsup, PSPS events are in service of limiting legal liability for the utilities, not reducing the causes driving wildfires, nor are they a strategy that protects “public safety”.

To address both challenges directly – while increasing economic opportunities, saving Californians money, and augmenting the central electric grid – we need to prioritize distributed customer sited energy storage + solar solutions that have an outsized impact on our shared climate resilient future and economic survival. Also posted on Energy Central.