California Goes Dark

Today is my mother’s 85th birthday and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) turned off the power for her and about 900,000 other customers across Northern California on Saturday. Fortunately my mom is a very resourceful lady and has a full tank of gas in the car, plenty of candles and a gas stove and a gas water heater. Since her phone still works we were able to wish her a happy birthday.

SF Chronicle

The blackouts are a deliberate move by the electric utility to prevent forest fires being caused by a combination of very dry conditions, high winds, an a high tension electric infrastructure that is in desperate need of renewal. According to the New York Times, the intervention “did not go well”.

It seems that PG&E was responsible for 1,500 fires in California in recent times including the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people last November. The problem is that the power lines are old and in ill repair and that enormous amount of trees and brush have grown up around them. As I wrote in a post at the time of the fire in Paradise, part of the problem is that climate change has made the fire season longer according to NASA.

As I understand it, there are essentially three levels of solutions to the problem and all of them will cost huge amounts of money that most utilities do not have.  PG&E, for example, has already filed for Bankruptcy as a result of its liabilities for fires it has already started.

REUTERS/Mike Blake

The fastest solution is to cut back the trees and foliage along the actual power lines and to inspect and replace the wooden poles which make up much of the system and can be knocked down in heavy wind.

The next level is to actually rebuild the grid using insulated power lines, steel and concrete poles and burying power lines underground. In many parts of the United States and the world, the grid needs to be updated anyway and replaced with what is called a smart grid to be better able to incorporate renewable energy and other forms of distributed power.

Many people believe that the real answer is to forget the centralized power utility model all together and to build microgrids that cover the needs of a neighborhood, small city, or large industrial facility such as an airport. For more information about microgrids you can read a report done for California or visit a specialized website.

A number of such projects are in progress such as a new microgrid for New York’s Kennedy Airport that is being built by a joint venture between Schneider Electric and Carlyle. The vision is that the microgrids would be powered by smaller scale power plants and renewables and then perhaps be connected with each other over a smarter and safer grid.

Tesla Solar Roof (Tech Crunch)

Beyond solving the issues connected with the power grid, another The approach is to do without any grid at all. With a solar roof, a large battery in the house and perhaps an electric car, a home can be potentially be fully independent. Tesla is for example, currently launching the 3rd iteration of its solar roof design which is estimated to cost just under $ 50,000 for an average home.