Original Reporting: The Hard Question Of When To De-energize And The Way To Avoid It
De-energize and DERs: The tough options wildfires pose for California utilities; Power shutoffs leave customers in the dark, and not shutting it off can spark deadly fires. But there is a third way.
Herman K. Trabish, Feb. 20, 2019 (Utility Dive)
Editor’s note: On July 3, a coalition of five California senators wrote to Governor Gavin Newsom asking that solar-storage, as described in this story, to be part of any wildfire legislation.
Devastating wildfires brought California's utilities and policymakers face to face with a hard choice, illustrated last fall by the experience of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the state's biggest electricity provider. In October 2018, PG&E, faced with an imminent wildfire threat, shut off power lines in high risk areas. Customers protested at being without electricity, but no fire occurred. The next month, facing another wildfire threat, PG&E, with protests still echoing, did not de-energize lines. The Camp Fire followed, killing 86 people and destroying 18,661 structures.
There is no way to prove de-energizing avoided a fire in October or that not de-energizing caused the Camp Fire. All of California's utilities face the dilemma as they prepare for the coming wildfire season. But distributed energy resources, especially solar-storage at the community and residential levels, could be part of the solution by delivering local power when lines are down to ease the impacts of de-energizing.
Now approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) as part of the wildfire mitigation plans required by 2018’s Senate Bill 901, de-energizing power lines is the emerging favorite among preventions for deadly wildfires like those California saw in 2017 and 2018. San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) has avoided catastrophic wildfires since 2007 using it as part of a comprehensive strategy. But turning off power is controversial because it can put vulnerable customers at risk, impose business losses, and leave first responders hampered. There were 146 claims for losses against PG&E after the October shutoff, including 25 claims of business economic impacts, according to the utility.
"If there is an urgent and present danger, and the utility going black can ameliorate it, it has to be done," economist Chris Marnay, senior scientific fellow at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), emailed Utility Dive. But IOU plans "rely too much on de-energizing," spokesperson Mindy Spatt of ratepayer advocacy group The Utility Reform Network (TURN) told Utility Dive. "It should be an emergency measure. We don't want wildfires, but shutting off the electricity can also have harmful impacts." De-energizing may, however, be the best near-term option because other aspects of utility mitigations will take years and billions of dollars…” click here for more
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