A Free-Market Energy Blog

Why is California Blaming Wildfires on a Small Percentage of Downed Power Lines? (Part I)

By -- November 13, 2019

“California’s reliance on hydropower and proliferation of remote, centralized renewable energy plants; the mandated environmental mothballing of 19 coastal natural gas power plants located close to customers; redundant transmission lines for green power; and seasonal wind blasts, results in lethal blast-furnace-like wildfires that leave trees alone but incinerate houses.”

“California leaders and opinion-makers must first abandon their blame game and diagnose the problem more clearly than using clichés like ‘global warming,’ ‘Donald Trump,’ ‘greed’ or even ‘not enough clear cutting,’ if they are going to responsibly deal with the dangerous unintended consequences of de-modernizing its electric grid.”

A question arising out of California’s recent wave of wind-fanned wildfires, is why are public officials mainly attributing the cause to downed electric transmission lines that comprise less than ten percent of all the causes of such fires?  This only further obscures why there are larger and more lethal wildfires.

The average percent of wildfires by cause in California from 2011 to 2015 is: undetermined (24%), miscellaneous (18%), debris burning (14%), equipment use (8%), downed power lines (8%), vehicle fires (7%), arson (6%), lightning (6%), campfires (3%), playing with fire (1%), smoking (1%), not reported (4%).

Downed electric lines are the fifth highest cause of wildfires at 8 percent.  As the Professional Firefighters Association of California has stated: “there is no single cause of California’s fire risk, and there is no single cure”.

Conservative news commentators have accurately blamed environmentalists for inadequate clear-cutting of trees around electric transmission lines. Conversely, former governor Jerry Brown blames global warming and President Donald Trump.  

New governor Gavin Newsom blames “greed” of electric utilities, apparently ignorant that their profits are set by the Public Utilities Commission whose president was appointed by Newsom. But this is nonetheless shortsighted because 92 percent of fires are attributed to other than downed powerlines.

Clear cutting trees outside of powerlines for the other 92 percent of causes would result in a scorched earth policy and prohibitive costs.   

California wildfires have become an ideological political football. Both sides do not recognize that lethal wildfires are the unintended consequence of installing a new “smart grid” into the electrical system and the green sprawl into California’s wild lands.

Comparison to Other States

Percentage of California Wildfires from Downed Power Lines:

Downed power lines caused 3.4 percent of wildfires in Oregon from 2015 to 2018. Oregon has about the same amount of forest land but is not as urbanized as California, and thus, has a proportionately smaller electric grid.

Oregon’s fires are often left to burn because they don’t threaten human habitation. Most importantly, however, Oregon depends on more hydropower (50 percent) for its electricity than California (13.5 percent). And its electricity comes mostly from dams along the Columbia River.

Conversely, a significant amount (43.5%) of California’s power comes from remote mountainous lakes and dams in forested areas or from transmission lines that import power from other states that have to cross forested areas before reaching large cities.

Texas, which has the most wildfires per year and more forested land than California, has only 1.9 percent of land fires from downed power lines. This is despite that up until this year many of its cities were blocking the clear-cutting of trees around power lines. Texas has about two-thirds of the population of California but does not import 30-percent of its electricity over mountainous, forested areas to reduce smog as does California. Texas relies on only 1 percent hydropower.

“Once-Through Cooling” Killed Coastal Power Plants

In 2010 California mandated the mothballing of 19 gas-generated electrical power plants, ostensibly to protect marine life. The shutdowns result from a ban on what is called “once-through cooling”. Steam-generating power plants are located along the coastline so the plants can use ocean water to cool its turbines and discharge warm water back into the ocean. These 19 power plants have to shut down or convert to expensive air-cooling systems. The location of these 19 coastal power plants and their service areas can be seen here.

What the closure of these power plants has done is shift where electricity is produced to remote, inland or out-of-state green power plants dependent on long-haul power lines. In 2013 PG&E warned the state grid operator (ISO) of future green power blackouts. Moreover, the shift to green power has required doubling some transmission lines because solar and wind power are redundant power to natural gas generated power.

The Blame Game

The San Jose Mercury News blames failed regulatory oversight of electric utilities by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It further asserts that this may end up forcing new governor Gavin Newsom (D) out of office, just as former governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 for botching the 2001 California Energy Crisis. That crisis, again, was initially wrongly blamed on the Texas-based Enron Corporation, which left the California market after three weeks and never had enough market share to influence power prices. The popularized media paradigm that Enron caused the energy crisis regardless of the facts otherwise is similar to the current situation where media deflects blame for disasters from government. 

California’s new governor has proposed that fire-bankrupted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) be broken up and municipalized.  Socializing the power grid won’t solve the problem but it will spread the costs of damages and deaths onto all Californians.  The largest municipal power agency in California, The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD –10,473 miles of powerlines, 3,800 miles distribution lines, 73,000 trees pruned/year,), has not been immune from blackouts due to downed powerlines.  

The California postmodern trend of locating housing in bucolic wilderness areas near mountain passes where winds pour into valleys, culminated in the 2018 ironically-named Paradise Fire where the trees withstood the fire but the houses burned, a reverse neutron bomb. Thinning trees may not have much impact in such bizarre situations.ss

California leaders and opinion-makers must first abandon their blame game and diagnose the problem more clearly than using clichés like “global warming”, “Donald Trump,” “greed” or even “not enough clear cutting,” if they are going to responsibly deal with the dangerous unintended consequences of de-modernizing its electric grid. 

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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.

3 Comments


  1. Wayne Lusvardi  

    It should be additionally noted, that so far in 2019, 1.3 percent of wildfire acreage burned in California is attributed to downed power lines (3,291 acres out of 250,349 acres burned).

    Another 34.5 percent of all wildfire acreage burned (86,557 acres out of 250,349 acres burned) had transmission lines in the vicinity but not confirmed as cause. The reporting of unconfirmed but suspected downed power lines is questionable because the fire fighting agencies depend on funds from electric utilities to fight these fires.

    Some of the miscellaneous causes of wildfires in 2019 include:
    1. unintentionally caused by auto traffic along state highway
    2. trash in garbage truck caught fire
    3. controlled burn that went out of control

    The largest fire, the Kinkaid Fire in Sonoma County (77,758 acres) is of unconfirmed origin but transmission lines nearby. But apparently no powerlines were found down.

    Reply

  2. Charles Warren  

    Ignition is one problem. Fuel is another. The short story is, ‘Exile Paul Bunyan. Embrace Smokey. In a couple generations there will be lots of fuels.’ Here are a few anecdotes.

    Most summers I spend some time at the USFS Dimond O campground near Yosemite. The year before the Rim Fire its neighbor to the north, Georgia Pacific, harvested something like 3/4 of the timber on their property. So the Rim Fire came, moving fast through the remaining bushes, sparing the remaining trees, and was easily steered through the camp ground with minimal damage.

    On the way up the hill to Yosemite on Highway 120 I used to pass a lumber mill near Chinese Camp. It was there from my youth, but gone last year. No more trees, or just no more logging?

    I’m told that in Paradise a person needed a city permit to trim vegetation. Guess that problem is solved.

    Very long ago I lived in Topanga Canyon. There were fires. What can you expect when the prevailing vegetation is called greasewood and depends on fire as part of its life cycle? Still, while I was evacuated three times in my youth and much was burned, much remained… until 1993. I made a work related visit shortly thereafter. Devastation. Of many homes I remembered all that remained were foundations. The one exception was also exceptionally ugly, made of concrete block with a tile roof. Back in “the good old days” that might not have been so ugly with adobe as the structural material. https://www.hotelcasamunras.com/resourcefiles/mainimages/monterey-state-historic-park-at-monterey-top.jpg So, if we really don’t want logging, how about an incentive to return to traditional adobe construction?

    Reply

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