Thursday, May 2, 2019

24/365 Electricity No Longer Possible in California

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan submitted to the Public Utilities Commission plans to shut off electric power during high wind events to prevent wild fires. This plan expands the scope of their Public Safety Power Shutoff (power shutoff) program to include all electric lines that pass through high fire-threat areas - both transmission and distribution. The power shutoff program will include 25,200 distribution circuit miles, and about 5,500 circuit miles of transmission lines including 500 kVu across elevated and extreme-fire risk areas, designated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

As California grows drier PG&E plan to address the growing threat of extreme weather and wildfires is to cut off power. Apparently, despite several plans, they have made little if any progress in improving the grid and hardening the power infrastructure to prevent sparking. PG&E cannot guarantee 24/7 -365 power to their customers. Great nations do not have power or water only when the weather is right.

PG&E states that while customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any of PG&E's more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off for safety when forecasted fire danger conditions warrant it. PG&E is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric energy companies in the United States, They have more than 20,000 employees, and the company delivers energy to nearly 16 million people in Northern and Central California- home to Silicon Valley. This is ironic.

PG&E says that due to the complexity of the electric grid, and the web-like connection between transmission lines, distribution lines and substations, there is a possibility that some customers outside a high-risk fire threat area, could have their power turned off based on the need to turn off a specific high-voltage circuit. They plan to give notification to customers of potential power shutoffs.

The 2019 PG&E Wildfire Safety plan addresses a wide array of wildfire risk factors through new and ongoing measures. Among the safety steps and actions include:
  • Installing nearly 600 new, high-definition cameras, made available to CAL FIRE and local fire officials, in high fire-threat areas by 2022 (can’t fix the grid-let’s look at it);
  • Adding approximately 1,300 additional new weather stations by 2022, (better to know when to shut off power);
  • Conducting enhanced safety inspections of electric infrastructure in high-fire threat areas (still not fixing the problem- but maybe identifying it);
  • Improving vegetation management, including clearing overhanging branches directly above and around power lines;
  • Disabling automatic reclosing of circuits in high fire-threat areas; (make sure that the power does not get automatically turned back on)
  • Installing stronger and more resilient poles and covered power lines, including targeted areas of burying of power line, starting in areas with the highest fire risk, ultimately upgrading and strengthening approximately 7,100 miles over the next 10 years; and
  • Partnering with communities in high fire-threat areas to create new "resilience zones" that can power central community resources during a shutoff. (Have communities buy generators to power essential services.) 
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers: “Some parts of the U.S. electric grid predate the turn of the 20th century. Most T&D lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and were not originally engineered to meet today’s demand, nor severe weather events....As a result of aging infrastructure, severe weather events, and attacks and vandalism, in 2015 Americans experienced a reported 3,571 total outages, with an average duration of 49 minutes.” PG&E’s new plan will increase that.

PG&E  is a publicly regulated utilities. Most of their revenue comes from electric rates approved by regulators that are set at a level to guarantee the utility recovers all costs for operating the electric system as well as the cost of building or buying a power plant — plus their guaranteed profit. The question is why have California Public Utilities Commission has allowed vastly expanding the number of  electricity generation plants in the state as electricity demand has fallen since 2008 while allowing the grid to deteriorate. California has some of the highest electric rates in the nation. What are their consumers getting for their money?

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