Sunday, June 23, 2019
written 16 June 2019
published 23 June 2019
The recent plan by PG&E to shut down the grid to prevent wildfires demands considering what a power resilient community would look like.
Calistoga experienced several weeks of lost power during the Tubbs fire in 2017. Even though it never burned into the town, businesses lost revenue, schools were closed, residents lost perishables, and there was great uncertainty about duration of the shutdown. In response, the city has funded a study to design a stand-alone micro grid, using solar and geothermal sources, combined with battery storage, allowing critical parts of the city to function even when the grid is down.
Montecito has come to the same micro grid conclusion resulting from their experience with the Thomas fire the same year. They are exploring a system where phase one would power the Fire and Water department headquarters, key wells and pumps, and emergency centers and supply facilities, defined as the local school, a small market, a gas station, a bank, and the post office. Phase two would expand the system to include a large grocery store and pharmacy, the sanitation district and several restaurants.
Unlike Calistoga, Ukiah has no local geothermal source, but there are two small generators (1 MW & 2.5 MW) at the Lake Mendocino dam, which could become the foundation for an emergency micro grid for the City. At best, this would cover a portion of the 300 MWhrs consumed on an average day, depending of water levels behind the dam. But in an emergency, a little power is much better than none at all. The existing city grid configuration is not designed to power specific facilities in an emergency, but that could be changed.
At a minimum, phase one should include essential city services, such as Fire, Police, and Sheriff headquarters, and especially their respective communication centers. City water and sewer headquarters, and all the wells, pumps, and treatment facilities should be included. The City has yet to clarify what part of the water and sewer system can work with no grid power, or how long their backup generators can function, or if they can power the entire system. Even if these diesel generators are adequate, we will be shifting from a normal of 70% green power to 100% brown power during a grid shutdown, which is not sustainable. A power down could happen during a triple digit heat event, requiring one or more emergency cooling centers, also helping people with medical needs that require power.
This bare minimum might be provided with a city grid redesign, powered by local hydro power, existing backup generators, and some added battery storage in key locations. But PG&E reports there could be as many as 20 shutdowns a season, some lasting for several days. The disruption to the community, and the economic losses incurred, will be significant. Unfortunately, the way the climate is trending, 20 shutdowns a season might become a low estimate. A power resilient community could be designed to thrive despite intermittent power.
Ideally, every home and business would have the capacity to collect and store power as it is available, wired to power critical circuits during a grid emergency.
Grocery stores and gas stations would have rooftop and parking lot solar arrays, with onsite power storage, allowing some functions to continue during a power shutdown. Businesses, particularly restaurants and banks, would also have collectors and storage to allow them to continue to serve the population during an emergency, as would schools and the hospital. Since phone communication is essential for fire preparedness, all cell towers would need to operate during a grid shutdown.
Our current system was built expecting power be available as needed, so we must re-build our systems to respond to this new normal. Electricity is so cheap and plentiful we waste it, but we can survive on much less for short durations. We don't need to create local systems to provide normal daily consumption. Only a fraction will be required, but it will make the difference between economic chaos with life-threatening disruptions, and a viable, resilient community.
This won't happen overnight, and the cost will be significant, but the cost of doing nothing will be even higher, so we need to start now.
Sunday, June 16, 2019
written 9 June 2019
published 16 June 2019
After WWI, France and England divided up the Arabian Peninsula, which had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. Neither country wanted to occupy any part of the region, but supported individual tribal leaders to act as their agents. One of those chosen was Ibn Saud, who went on to defeat local rivals, consolidate territory, and form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Eight years later, vast oil reserves were discovered in eastern reaches of the country. These fields were brought into production by American oil companies a few years later as WWII began, generating enormous wealth for the Saud ruling family.
Shortly after the prophet Muhammad died in 632, a dispute over succession split Islam into two denominations, Sunni and Shia. Both revere the Quran as the literal words of the prophet, but there are differences in the interpretation, which have led to violent conflict over time, much like the Catholic/Protestant division. Approximately 85% of the world's Muslims are Sunni, but Shia are majority in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the current leaders of their respective denominations, and the religious dispute is played out in their geopolitics.
Two centuries ago, an ultra-conservative Sunni preacher formed Wahhabism, with very narrow, inflexible interpretations of Islam, and aligned himself with the Saud family for mutual political gain. As the Saud family gained power and wealth, so did Wahhabism. After WWII, oil revenues helped spread the message throughout the Islamic world using books, media, schools, universities and mosques. Like other rigid religious fundamentalists, Wahhabism has no tolerance for other religious belief, and is particularly harsh with regard to Shia Islam, which it regards as heretical. Within Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism controls the education, law, and public morality courts, in exchange for ignoring the flagrant disregard of these mores by the ruling family.
When American domestic oil production peaked in 1972, control of the price of oil shifted to Saudi Arabia. A year later came the first oil boycott against the US for supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur war, which quadrupled the price of oil. To get oil flowing again, America made a deal to supply economic aid, modern weapons, and military training. In return, Saudi Arabia would demand that oil be sold in dollars alone, giving the US an enormous economic advantage, and those dollars were deposited in American banks.
Although Saudi Arabian oil wealth continued to grow, it was unevenly distributed within the country. Currently, the Royal family is estimated to contain 15,000 people, with a total net worth of over $1 trillion, ruling a country of 32 million people with a per capita worth of $21K. Popular discontent at this inequity is controlled within Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabist religious structure, but outrage has exploded into action around the world in the form of terrorism against the western economies, particularly American, that fund this arrangement. The majority of Islamic terrorist groups in the world are Sunni, inspired and funded by Wahhabism with Saudi oil money. The five deadliest are all Sunni: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram.
America's addiction to oil caused us to align ourselves with Saudi Arabia decades ago, and we continue to pay a huge price for that alignment. With no stake in the Sunni/Shia schism ourselves, we automatically take the Sunni side in the conflict with Iran. Ignoring Saudi Wahhabist cultivation of terrorists, we vilify Iran as a "terrorist" state. We recently sold the Saudi's advanced weapons worth $7 billion and Trump is giving them nuclear technology, while sanctioning Iran for its own nuclear development. Our weapons kill children in the Sunni/Shia conflict in Yemen, and even though Congress voted to end involvement in that war, it continues to this day.
While we are loath to think of America terrorizing parts of the world, we should at least take a look at what our "allies" are doing with our blessing. Not only do we lose moral standing with the rest of the world, but these attacks kill Americans as well. Surely there is more to our country than exporting weapons and endless war in exchange for oil, which is changing the climate and killing our children's future.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
written 2 June 2019
published 9 June 2019
Misuse of antibiotics eliminates moderate and beneficial strains, insuring virulent varieties thrive. A similar problem occurs in geopolitics.
For 2500 years the Persian culture has occupied the crossroads between Asia and Europe now known as Iran. Despite being invaded and occupied by numerous other cultures, it still endures. Independence was granted by the Allies after WWII, with a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament.
Oil was discovered in 1908, which British Petroleum developed, while keeping the profits. In 1951 the popular prime minister nationalized the oil fields. A British supported coup against the prime minister was put down in August 1953, and the Shah went into exile. One month later, a coup organized by the CIA returned the Shah to power, who handed the oil resources to American oil companies.
American foreign policy supports hard line governments in regions of "interest", for American corporate advantage. The Shah of Iran became our agent in the middle East, building the strongest military in the region. Aggressive repression of dissent by US trained secret police created a radical religious reaction. In January 1978, popular demonstrations began, the Shah fled the country, and Iran became an Islamic Republic in April 1979.
Iran demanded $2B deposited in American banks be returned, which the banks didn't have on hand. The US government helped by admitting the Shah into the country for cancer treatment in October 1979, expecting a reaction from Iran. One week later students overran the US embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage and the US froze Iranian bank accounts and other assets. In a cynical piece of geopolitics, the Reagan election committee made a deal with Iran. In exchange for arms, Iran agreed to stall negotiations for the release of the hostages for 444 days, until after the 1980 presidential election, which helped Reagan defeat Carter.
The same year, taking advantage of Iranian turmoil, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched a surprise invasion. To punish Iran for deposing our pet middle East dictator, the US backed Hussein, making him our new agent in the region. After eight years, the war ended with borders back where they started. One million Iranian had died, many from chemical weapons supplied by the US, further cementing Iranian hatred for America.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, America pulled together a coalition which defeated Iraq in such short order it disturbed other nations in the region.
To protect itself from America's thirst for violent regime change, Iran began to expand their nuclear program with Russian help, which increased further after the second Iraqi invasion in 2003. America responded with crippling economic sanctions.
By 2007, Israel wanted to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, but American strategists were concerned this would bring the US into the conflict while we were still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush knew there was little public support for another war. Working with Israel, the US secretly attacked the Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities with a sophisticated computer virus. This plan delayed the Iranian program for a year, but was bungled. The virus spread worldwide and became public, making a sophisticated weapon available to everyone including the Iranians. A cyber weapons attack on infrastructure was unprecedented, and by doing it first, America normalized such behavior.
In late 2013, Iran signed a deal with nuclear powers China, Russia, England, and the US, putting a verifiable cap on their enrichment program in exchange for removing economic sanctions. In 2018, to spite Obama and bolster his own ego, Trump unilaterally welched on the deal, ignoring reports from other countries that Iran was complying. Trump re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran, threatening the world if they didn't follow his lead. We haven't resolved our last middle East war yet, but National Security Advisor Bolton has ratcheted up tension in the Persian Gulf, ignoring the fact that disruption of oil shipments could crash the US economy.
Like presidents before him, Trump thinks American is supposed to be the only meddling bully on the planet, and resents competition or defiance. In addition, he knows that a foreign war is a good distraction from his growing domestic problems. Iran has suffered American aggression and domination for 70 years, but we call them "terrorists".
Sunday, June 2, 2019
written 26 May 2019
published 2 June 2019
At the request of citizens, the County voted to form a Climate Advisory Committee. While I agree that another $100,000 director is a questionable first priority, I was disappointed to see the local cynics pile on to kill the messenger. Denigrating people for concern about climate change is arrogant foolishness masquerading as cleverness. Fortunately, reality has given us a real issue to consider: PG&E plans to shut down the gird this summer to prevent wildfires.
For decades, PG&E has deferred infrastructure maintenance to boost executive salaries and shareholder returns. The last two fire seasons have demonstrated the bankruptcy of this plan. To avoid incurring further liabilities, PG&E has instituted a plan for preemptive grid shutdown whenever there is a red flag weather advisory. This strategy has been used successfully for several years by Southern California Edison, in conjunction with investments to measure weather conditions, model fire behavior, and reorganize the grid to make a strategic shutdown with minimal disruption. Coming late to the game, PG&E has made none of these investments, so our grid shutdown will be less graceful.
With few exceptions, the electricity used in Mendocino County is shipped over long distance transmission lines owned by PG&E. Fire Chief Jennings reported at the recent FireSafe council meeting that PG&E estimated these lines could be shut down as many as 20 times during the fire season. The company plans to give notice 24 hours beforehand. A shutdown could be for as little as 12 hours, but could last a few days. Regulations require that a transmission line be visually inspected before being re-energized to avoid starting a fire with damaged equipment.
We count on having electricity 24/7 in our homes and workplaces for cooking, lighting, refrigeration, air conditioning, communication, entertainment, water delivery and sewage disposal. The new normal will be intermittent electricity, just like a third world country. Because of the short notice, we are unprepared and this summer could be rough, like an unexpected camping trip. As individuals, and as a community, we should begin planning now.
PG&E has a web page with some suggestions: https://prepareforpowerdown.com. The following information and suggestions were presented to the FireSafe groups. PG&E shutdown notice will be by NIXLE alert (cell phones) and Sheriff MendoAlert (emails & cells). When you receive a notice, charge your cell phones, and fill your cars with gas. If you have garage door openers, park cars outside the garage. Most gas stations and food stores don't have backup power, and the few that do will have limited supplies. Consider what makes sense to purchase in advance. Have cash on hand as the banking system may not function during the shutdown. When the grid goes down, cell towers may go down as well, so a transistor radio with batteries, or a crank powered radio, is a good option. Consider solar-powered or crank-powered lights, and flashlights with extra batteries. People on oxygen should have an extra cylinder on hand. People with other health needs must consider their alternatives and prepare. Business owners should decide what functions can still be provided, if any.
The City of Ukiah is working to set up cooling stations, as a shutdown may happen during high daytime temperatures. If there is enough water behind the dam, the hydroelectric plant at Lake Mendocino can power the Ukiah High School as a cooling station, with kitchen, cafeteria, and gymnasium space. The Ukiah hospital will retain electricity with their own backup generator, but will not be a cooling center, and they may be overwhelmed by the emergency. The City of Ukiah has said that the water and sewage systems will still function for most of those on city services, but anyone outside the city should consider how to provide those services for themselves.
This is a climate driven emergency. Decades of corporate denial of the magnitude of the climate crisis have squandered the opportunity for easy solutions, so the situation is now disruptive. The choice has never been between the economy and the environment: there is no economy without a healthy environment. We will probably survive this fire season, but we must begin to envision and build a resilient community. The time for complacent denial is over.