Wildfires represent one of the toughest challenges for electric utilities in the U.S. West. As climate change leads to more intense heat and droughts, western states have experienced longer wildfire seasons, and there have been a growing number of wildfires caused by dry vegetation contacting power lines. An often-cited example: the Camp Fire, started by power lines operated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), ultimately destroyed more than 18,000 structures and caused 85 fatalities in 2018.
It’s no easy task to manage wildfires, especially for utilities like PG&E that must contend with high-risk weather conditions across large service territories. Recognizing the devastating consequences that wildfires can have on communities, utilities have made wildfire prevention a top priority. One critically important tool in their prevention toolbox is to intentionally turn off the power to avoid wildfires—an event known as a public safety power shutoff (PSPS). These shutoffs happen when a utility determines that there is a high wildfire risk in an area based on an evaluation of environmental conditions, such as wind speeds, humidity levels, and moisture content of vegetation near power lines. The utility usually gives the affected communities advance notice of the shutoff, restoring power after conditions have improved and power lines have been inspected.
While PSPSs have proven essential to avoiding deadly wildfires, they can result in other safety risks for communities if not implemented with care. Our CEO, Astrid Atkinson, who lives in the rural, wooded region between the San Francisco Bay and Santa Cruz, has experienced many PSPSs firsthand along with related community disruptions.
The PSPSs in Astrid’s neighborhood, which is in PG&E’s service territory, have typically lasted two to five days—much longer than regular outages. They often cover very large areas spanning numerous counties. She and her neighbors can’t drive to the store to get ice or take their children to school because these places don’t have power either.
Within an hour or two of losing power, she loses her landline phone service, and within a day or so, she loses cell phone service, leaving no way to communicate with the outside world.
“If there were a nearby wildfire or other emergency, it would be impossible for me to be notified by reverse 911,” said Astrid. “And because everyone in the broader region has lost connectivity, no one is posting to social media about approaching fires either. We’re all left in a constant state of worry.”
For a period, Astrid was hosting her elderly mother-in-law, who had cancer.
“During the shutoffs, it wasn’t safe for my mother to remain at my house because it was so hot without air conditioning,” said Astrid. “When the COVID pandemic hit, it also wasn’t safe to seek air conditioning at a distant hotel. It was frustrating and scary to have no safe refuge anywhere.”
In addition to the planned shutoffs, other wildfire risk mitigation efforts have led to additional outages in Astrid’s community. To prevent fires due to contact between vegetation and power lines, PG&E recently implemented system trip settings designed to disconnect power when power lines are obstructed. This means that even a squirrel touching a line can trigger a widespread outage. Because PG&E must inspect the lines before restoring service, restoration can take several days.
“Altogether, my community is now experiencing about 50 outages per year and is without electric service about one-quarter of the time during fire seasons,” said Astrid.
Astrid’s experiences point to several lessons that can inform a more holistic approach to wildfire mitigation.
Reliability is paramount. Utilities across the nation are pursuing initiatives to electrify vehicles, buildings, and other end uses. While these are necessary to reduce the energy system’s carbon emissions, a greater dependence on electricity will leave communities more vulnerable to safety risks during extended service interruptions. A PSPS could lead to situations in which wildfires are approaching communities, but residents are unable to evacuate because they can’t charge their EVs. Shutoffs could isolate vulnerable elderly populations inside hot homes without air conditioning.
“Utilities need to accelerate efforts to enhance grid reliability in parallel with electrification initiatives,” said Astrid. “If society becomes more dependent on electricity, an extremely high level of reliability is a must.”
The grid as a public good. If PSPSs increase in frequency, more utility customers will purchase solar and backup battery power for their homes, reducing revenue flowing to the utility. The utility will have fewer resources for grid operations and wildfire mitigation and will be forced to raise rates, which provides a stronger incentive for more customers to defect from the grid.
“The utility death cycle is no surprise to utility leaders, as it has been talked about in theory for more than a decade,” said Astrid. “But it has become more than a theory for me. I’ve recently decided to purchase a large battery backup system for my house because of the lack of reliable service.”
To prevent grid defection, utilities can create programs that provide financial incentives for their customers to deploy batteries.
“We need more utility programs that treat the grid as a public good,” said Astrid. “These can offer customers financial and technical support for safe backup power during outages. Without such programs, many people—including many of my neighbors—will be unable to afford backup systems and will continue to face unsafe conditions during PSPSs. Customers and utilities can also use these batteries to support the grid when it is online, which can lower costs for everyone.”
Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate. In advance of PSPSs, utilities can coordinate with infrastructure providers, municipal agencies, and other community stakeholders to make sure cell phone towers, grocery stores, pharmacies, and other critical facilities have sufficient backup power for longer-duration outages. They can also help set up central locations where community members can charge their EVs and phones or refrigerate their medical supplies. Utilities are starting to do this, though many of these efforts are still in early stages.
Explore non-grid solutions. Consider Ford’s new F-150 Lightning. This all-electric truck includes a feature called Intelligent Backup Power that can provide full-home power for up to three days. If a community had many of these portable, mobile backup generators, it could have a much more resilient response to fires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events. Another example: for people with rooftop solar, Enphase’s new IQ8 microinverter can form a microgrid during an outage and deliver power without a battery.
“With solutions like these, electrification can bolster resilience instead of hindering it,” said Astrid.
Many utilities have already taken innovative steps to mitigate wildfire risks. One shining example is San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E). For more than a decade, SDG&E has invested heavily in a robust wildfire prevention program. The utility has a team of six meteorologists that continually analyzes wildfire risk across its grid. They use an extensive network of 221 weather stations across their service territory that provide on-demand wind speed reporting every 30 seconds, cameras that sense vegetation quality, and satellite images that detect new wildfires and measure vegetation moisture every minute. Drawing on this information, AI-based modeling software simulates a potential fire’s direction, rate of spread, and impacted communities. These tools enable SDG&E to precisely identify the highest risk areas so that PSPSs can be targeted to small portions of the grid, avoiding multi-county outages. The information generated by SDG&E equipment is shared with first responders and academia and enables the company to further decrease the footprint of Public Safety Power Shutoffs when weather conditions permit.
During shutoffs, SDG&E coordinates with emergency responders and other local agencies and opens Community Resource Centers to support affected customers. The utility deploys mobile batteries at these centers and at other local facilities so that customers have access to electricity for critical needs. SDG&E has also implemented microgrids at five sites that utilize conventional generators, though each is now being converted to utilize renewable resources. Since 2007, SDG&E has implemented several grid hardening measures to mitigate fire risk. These include undergrounding critical infrastructure and replacing wood poles with fire-resistant steel poles.
Holy Cross Energy (HCE), an electric cooperative in western Colorado that uses Camus Energy’s grid management platform, has innovated in the realm of community resilience. Since 2017, HCE has collaborated with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to deploy a microgrid connecting the Basalt Vista affordable housing community with solar power arrays and batteries. Software developed by NREL enables the 27 homes to share electricity with each other autonomously. For the majority of the year, the neighborhood has access to a few days of backup power in the case of a grid outage due to a wildfire or other extreme weather event.
HCE has also launched a program, Power+, providing its members with Tesla Powerwalls that deliver up to 40 hours of backup power. HCE covers the upfront costs of the batteries in exchange for a small monthly bill charge and the ability to call upon them periodically to reduce the cooperative’s peak demand charges. The program lowers the costs of running the grid, keeps member rates affordable, and provides backup power for homes. The Camus platform provides HCE with the visibility, forecasting, and controls to orchestrate batteries for peak management.
While wildfires are here to stay, the good news is that utilities have a robust set of options for addressing the risks, including a number of effective approaches to boost local resilience. Camus Energy is here to help. A core objective of our work is to help utilities integrate solar, batteries, microgrids, and other distributed energy resources into grid operations. Using our platform to manage these resources, utilities and other load-serving entities can enhance the resilience of the communities they serve, reduce wildfire risk, and deliver economic benefits to communities. We look forward to addressing these challenges together.