It seems to me….
“Well, the responsibility for maintaining a reliable transmission grid is one that’s shared by an awful lot of players who have a role in the grid: Companies that either generate and transmit energy or just play the role of being the transmission systems or monitoring them.” ~ Spencer Abraham.
Global warming has affected everyone. More frequent and severe weather-related events, flooding, higher temperatures, and wildfires are only some of the impact being experienced. California was especially hard-hit by fires in 2017-2018, several of which were ignited by electric utility company transmission lines. While transmission line maintenance is costly to the utility companies, it is even more so to utility customers subject to power outages regardless of their location. Options are now available capable of reducing the effects of those outages while ultimately making service more affordable.
The wildfire season in California has expanded from a few months each year to a year-long phenomenon. From a scientific perspective, this new reality is made much more likely by climate change which raises temperatures and makes drought more persistent. Millions of trees died across California after years of intense drought creating vast quantities of fuel that allow fires to burn faster and over greater distances. That, combined with higher temperatures, has resulted in conditions capable of potential disaster.
Nearly 9,000 wildfires burned 1.2 million acres (1,875 sq. miles) of land – an area the size of Delaware – in late 2017, destroyed more than 10,800 structures, and killed at least 46 people. The California electric utility Pacific Gas & Electric was responsible for at least 12 of those fires that caused billions in damage due to fires initially sparked by power lines which, in most cases, came into contact with trees. The utility points to climate change as the actual cause: planetary warming has created conditions that makes such fires all but inevitable.
As bad as 2017 was, 2018 became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record in California with a total of 8,527 major wildfires fires burning an area of 1,893,913 acres (3,000 sq. miles). Just three of those wildfires, the Camp Fire; Woolsey Fire, and Hill Fire; caused more than $9 billion in damage, killed 88 people, and damaged or destroyed nearly 20,000 structures. The Camp Fire alone killed at least 86 people, destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, damaged nearly 5,000 other structures, and resulted in nearly 27,000 claims totaling over $7 billion. Energy companies are responsible for starting many of these fires including both the Camp and Woolsey Fires.
Energy companies object to being held economically accountable for expenses associated with fires directly attributable to their power lines or transformers from trees being blown into those lines. Energy companies claim increasing damage to lines can partially be attributed to climate change and they therefore should not be held responsible.
This argument, though, is at best only partly correct. Energy companies have, especially in the past, directly contributed to carbon dioxide increases by using coal or natural gas generation facilities, a primary source of carbon dioxide causing global warming. They also have resisted burying power lines and transformers based on cost even though power outages cost customers substantial amounts in lost business and time. In 2017, customers dealt with a reported 3,571 power outages lasting an average of 49 minutes, a 62 percent increase from a decade earlier. Above ground power lines also constitute a safety hazard along roadsides and through neighborhoods. Carbon-based power generation is additionally both an environmental and health issue which companies refuse to acknowledge or factor into accounting statements.
No one wishes to force public utilities, such as energy companies, into insolvency but this, as in many problems, is not a zero-sum issue. Rather than being held totally accountable for costs associated with fire responses, energy companies should be given a fixed amount of time to place all transmission lines underground, encourage local energy production, and replace large regional power production facilities with more local generation and transmission. Partially subsidizing energy company modernization and improvement using public funding that otherwise would be expended fighting fires would benefit everyone.
There is much else that could be done to reduce power company’s culpability for the increasing number of such events related to their systems. Much of the distribution network remains essentially unchanged from when originally built and is rapidly becoming increasingly obsolete. These companies have a significant investment in that technology and are reluctant to embark on a costly improvement program, especially when public utility commissions (PUCs) across the country are committed to maintaining utility rates as low as possible. Still, power generation and transmission technologies are rapidly changing in response to the need to eliminate the fossil fuel dependency causing climate change forcing utility companies to reconsider much of their existing design dependencies.
More than 100 years ago scientists and business leaders feuded over the incipient U.S. electrical grid: should it rely on alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC). Thomas Edison championed DC as the better option but by the early 20th century AC prevailed for technical and economic reasons. Technology for power transmission advanced in the 1970s allowing direct current to return as a viable option, especially for lines more than 300 to 500 miles long, where DC outcompetes AC. After a certain distance, AC systems become more costly to build than DC and have larger power losses along the line because of issues such as higher impedance. The Midwest and other regions are now producing a great deal of renewable energy and utility companies need a way to deliver it to distant urban and industrial centers. DC lines provide a much better solution to move power from big, remote wind or solar farms.
The national power grid connects homes, businesses, and other buildings to central power sources which allow us to use appliances, heating/cooling systems, and electronics. But this interconnectedness means that when part of the grid needs to be repaired, everyone is affected. The grid has rapidly evolved and improved in recent years as utility companies have developed innovative ways to move electrical power around the country to account for weather fluctuations including extreme temperature-related demands.
There are more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids which currently are at maximum capacity. Additionally, the nation’s grid was constructed to allow electricity to flow in one direction – to the customer. With the increase in distributed power sources, such as solar, businesses and consumers are increasingly selling back excess power to local utilities. Electricity delivery in the U.S. depends on a complex patchwork system of power generation facilities, transmission and distribution grids, local distribution lines, and substations owned by an array of investor and publicly owned utilities, independent power producers, and governmental agencies.
Maximum wind and solar availability are not uniformly distributed across the entire country. Additional constraints resulting from local weather differences and daily sunlight cycles necessitate national power grid redesign and upgrade. Dependency on large regional power generation facilities can be expected to decrease as more private and corporate structures generate their own power and feed excess energy back onto the grid. To better facilitate these changes, energy utilities should be encouraged by local PUCs to modify their billing to separately breakout customer charges for energy generation, transmission, and storage.
The largest change in energy provision is transitioning from large regional production to smaller local facilities called microgrids. Microgrids are a form of distributed energy generation capable of functioning independently from the traditional, centralized regional power grid. They can enable towns, sections of cities, or even corporations to develop their own energy sources and power storage systems, distribute that energy, and depending upon their independence, possibly even provide excess power back to local utilities.
A microgrid is a local energy supply network with control capability. They are built around local power generation facilities designed to operate autonomously or in synchronization with a national grid within a clearly defined area. Battery technology is now capable of storing sufficient emergency backup energy for when renewable sources are not adequate to provide immediate supplementary power whenever necessary. Able to operate while the main grid is down, microgrids can strengthen grid resilience and help mitigate grid disturbances as well as function as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery.
A microgrid generally operates while connected to the grid, but importantly, it can break off and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis such as storms, power outages, or other reasons. A microgrid connects to the grid at a point of common coupling that maintains voltage at the same level as the main grid unless there is some problem on the grid or other reason to disconnect. A switch can separate the microgrid from the main grid either automatically or manually enabling it to then function as an independent island.
Most microgrids, rather than being dependent on large regional power production facilities normally incorporate renewable energy sources (solar, wind, or biomass), include a link to the electrical grid for when power production is either insufficient or exceeds current requirements, and some form of energy storage (batteries, hydrogen storage, mechanical storage, etc.). For now, many also include some form of fossil fuel energy sources to ensure grid stability. Such grids typically are more sustainable, costs less, and produce lower emissions than larger power generating facilities.
They enable communities to collect, store, and use their own energy rather than be dependent upon power sources located elsewhere. Microgrids also offer security that a larger grid cannot as they are more resistant to outages from blackouts or cyber-attacks. They can be isolated from the grid when necessary providing resiliency and frugality while reducing dependency upon more expensive carbon-based fuels for backup generation. In addition, the use of local sources of energy to serve local loads helps reduce energy losses in transmission and distribution further increasing efficiency of the electric delivery system.
Microgrids currently supply only about 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of U.S. electricity, less than 0.2 percent of installed capacity. Nearly 500MW of microgrid capacity has been recently been added and cumulative microgrid capacity is expected to increase by 115 percent surpassing 4GW by the year 2020. Just as solar rooftop installations on homes have skyrocketed over the past decade due to falling costs, there’s an expanding business opportunity for affordable microgrids which now have an estimated return on investment of seven to eight years.
Consumer preferences are rapidly forcing an industry traditionally based on scale and cost/kWh to provide electricity with beneficial environmental attributes. While there previously was a “green premium” for purchasing renewable or carbon-free electricity, that cost differential has essentially disappeared. Those utility providers uncomfortable with the pace of industry transformation must adapt as there isn’t any indication it will slow down any time over the next five years.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Edward Spencer Abraham is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a U.S. Senator from Michigan and the tenth Secretary of Energy serving under President George W. Bush.