Monday, May 21, 2018
15 January, 2018
pub 21 Jan 18
The official cause of the wine country fires has yet to be released, but indications are that downed power lines, due to high winds, were the source of ignition. A few weeks after the fires, the Journal printed a letter from Gene Hoggren, suggesting that one way to build local fire resilience would be to turn off the electrical grid in areas where a high wind alert was forecast. PG&E could invest in limited distributed storage to cover those shut off. I would like to elaborate on that idea.
Geography plays an important part in the localized high winds that contributed to the disastrous rapid spread of the fires. In October, Willits had little wind while Potter Valley had gales. Much of the area of the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa had burned in the 1960s. In December, 2017, Southern California Edison shut down parts of the grid due to wind, to minimize damage to the system and prevent wild fires. These wind events can now be accurately predicted due to high resolution modeling and state of the art instrumentation. With the grid restructured to facilitate at risk areas being powered down, this would save lives and property.
Electricity is a fundamental part of our civilization, and the loss, even for a brief time, is inconvenient, disruptive, or even fatal. Distributed storage, which is storage at the user end rather than the production end, creates more system resilience, and is now economically possible due to reduced cost of battery production. The goal would be a battery pack, with appropriate power controller, installed in every house in high wind areas, wired to allow operation of critical systems. Having a modest amount of power in an emergency would make a big difference.
No matter what each unit cost, this would require a significant investment, due the number of houses covered. In addition to the cost of design and fabrication of the power units, there would be labor costs to install and integrate them into each house. But public utilities routinely make large long-term investments in the system. In the 1980's, PG&E paid to upgrade insulation in housing within their service area. They were encouraged by a PUC rule change that allowed them to count money invested in energy conservation (negawatts) as energy generated. A similar rule change would be required to stimulate investment to make the system more resilient.
Eminent domain allows PG&E to take land for the larger good, but there is an obligation side to that right holding them responsible for losses caused by malfunctioning of their infrastructure. They were recently fined for a 2010 natural gas line explosion, and they may be held liable for 2017 wild fire damages in northern California. They have limited insurance coverage, and recently a court decided that losses will be paid by stockholders, not customers. To avoid future exposure, PG&E might be interested in distributed storage and selective grid shut down.
Distributed storage at the local level would help our community to be resilient for all emergency situations. A pilot project designing this specific product would take some research and experimentation, and might be a project for the Mendocino College. Perhaps these could be manufactured locally and marketed through Costco, which already markets solar systems.
This is also an investment in an emerging power market. When this kind of storage system is added to renewable production (wind or solar), it becomes a product of use all over the world, in emerging economies, and re-localizing communities in developed economies. Domestic centralized power is precarious these days, due to growing loads on an aging US infrastructure. Energy production based on fossil fuels requires increasing debt, as the most lucrative resources are already in decline. Due to declining prices, renewable power with storage will soon be the cheapest form of new utility power. Climate change is already here, and reduction of atmospheric CO2 is the only hope of avoiding even greater disruption.
Much like prudent fiscal behavior, we need to learn how to thrive within our annual energy income, rather than burning through our finite inherited energy savings. The more a community is powered with renewable sources and local storage, the more resilient it will be to survive changes. Think how your life is affected by having the power go out for even a day. What if it was down for a week?
What if it never came back at all?