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Ready Fossil Fuel Solutions for California Wildfires and Blackouts (Part II)

By -- November 14, 2019

“Although 92-percent of the reasons for wildfires are non-powerline related, people associate such firestorms with modern technology.”

“Localized, small and mobile natural gas-fueled power plants and generators, coupled with underground power lines, offer the only localized option for safe and reliable electricity. Rooftop solar panels and giant solar and wind farms located in remote desert areas merely increase reliance on transmission lines that have to be routed through wooded areas.”

What often fans the flames of anti-modernism in California is apprehension and hysteria, about risks of modern technology such as nuclear reactor radiation, nuclear bomb firestorms, and, now, new, recurring reverse neutron-bomb-like seasonal firestorms in mountain areas that kill people but leave trees standing (e.g., Paradise Fire, 2018).  

Physicist H. W. Lewis’s book Technological Risk points out that fear and risk are not the same. One may fear radiation fall out in the air from Japan but hardly have any fears about driving that kills thousands. But, concern about firestorms is primal for they can annihilate everything (family, property, animals, etc.).

Although 92-percent of the reasons for wildfires are non-powerline related, people associate such firestorms with modern technology.  Politicians disproportionately fan the flames of hysteria about powerline related fires for political purposes. Nonetheless, communities should have the choice to decide to put powerlines underground to reduce risk of fire, albeit transmission lines cannot be feasibly buried but distribution lines can.

Localized, small and mobile natural gas-fueled power plants and generators, coupled with underground power lines, offer the only localized option for safe and reliable electricity.  Rooftop solar panels and giant solar and wind farms located in remote desert areas merely increase reliance on transmission lines that have to be routed through wooded areas.  Moreover, wind turbines suspiciously spark what is called “clockwork lightning” or bolts of lightning, but little is known about them yet because they have not been studied. High speed windstorms may also disable wind turbines.

Distributed Generation

Distributed generation of electricity refers to a mix of technologies that generate electricity at, or near, where it will be used. The public image is often one of distributed power being exclusively green power, such as roof-top solar panels, small wind turbines and micro grids. But massive centralized solar farms in the California desert and wind machines located in windy mountain passes are not distributed generation or small is beautiful. (“Small is beautiful” was the mantra of four-term California governor Jerry Brown.)

California already deploys micro-turbine natural gas power cogeneration plants to supply all the electricity in some of its college campuses, such as the 15-megawatt co-generation natural gas-solar power plant at San Diego State University. Commercial Distributed Gas Generation (DGG – 2 megawatts) is already deployed at Taylor Farms in Gonzalez and True Leaf Farms in San Juan Bautista, California.

California’s perpetual, deadly wildfires are surely going to be a political force for small communities to install self-sufficient power plants that eliminate long-distance power lines that have to span across mountain chains and route through fire-prone mountain passes.

Installation of gas-fired mini-power plants would likely not be municipally financed. It is more likely they would be financed, built and operated by private, regulated power companies, such as retail water service to smaller and some large communities (e.g., San Jose) is currently provided in California. The state might have to pick up the cost of undergrounding distribution (not transmission) lines in vulnerable communities. That would be a better investment than perpetually clear-cutting powerline rights of way or municipalizing PG&E.   

Mobile Natural Gas Turbines for Emergency Lifeline Backup

Another potential practical solution is mobile natural gas turbines that are hauled around on a semi-trailer truck or in a transport airplane to provide emergency power during blackouts.  

Typically, large hospitals, heavy industrial plants and large office complexes have their own backup diesel or petrol-powered electrical generators in the event of emergencies.

However, for municipal power, industrial natural gas turbines are required. A gas-powered mobile turbine can provide from 30 to 38 megawatts of power, enough to light up 30,000 to 38,000 homes (60,000 to 76,000 people) during temporary power losses. An in-place standby gas turbine can be generating power in six minutes. They have no visible emissions and low NOX emissions.

When the Fukushima, Japan nuclear power plant was wrecked by the tsunami from the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, a chain of mobile gas turbine units was interconnected to provide 135-megawatts of electricity for 135,000 households or 270,000 + people in Tokyo.

The Caterpillar Company advertises that it can deliver power at a cost of $0.07 to $0.09 per kilowatt hour (kwh) depending on air temperature. The average price of electricity in California, including 33% renewable energy, is $0.19 per kwh.

Gas-powered Home Generators

Natural gas-powered home generators are another option in fire-prone areas.  Reportedly, such units can be installed for $10,000 to $30,000. Although this can be unaffordable for many, government is already subsidizing rooftop solar systems for $30,000 that provide power for only 6 to 8 hours per day and, again, depend on natural gas power plants for backup, which requires transmission lines. 

The M-Co Gen company offers a gas-solar powered home generator that also cools as well as heats and electrifies a home. But why mix rooftop solar panels with natural gas when the panels risk damage in high wind zones?  Gas-powered generators are usually located outside homes which also run a risk during firestorms.  But gas-generators would provide more reliability over purely electric generators during planned blackouts.

Resistance to Micro Gas-Power is Political, not Safety

It seems strange to propose fossil fuel-based solutions to wildfires in a state that is mothballing its natural gas power plants as rapidly as possible, as well as its cities are lining up to pass laws banning natural gas power and heat in the near future. But here we are….

It is part of the anti-modernization ideology of California that is so powerfully attractive to those in the knowledge class of governing elites who reject Capitalism and big industry who are made the scapegoats of green power policies.  

Spot fossil-fuel power solutions can reduce real and perceived risks from California’s dependence on long-distance power lines. The solutions proposed here coincide with the post-modern “small is beautiful” ideology that former governor Jerry Brown implanted the state with in 1975.

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Wayne Lusvardi appraises private water companies regulated by the Public Utilities Commission in California. He served on the California energy crisis task force in 2001 for the state’s largest wholesale water agency.  Contact: waynelus@yahoo.com.

Part I of this series was published yesterday.

4 Comments


  1. Local Grids for Energy and Education – Economic Thinking  

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  2. Mark Krebs  

    Good information Wayne.

    Here is a little more information to do it on the cheap: Google this — “converting a harbor freight engine to natural gas or propane”

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    […] Ready Fossil Fuel Solutions for California Wildfires and Blackouts (Part II) […]

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