Mass Blackouts Threaten To Be The New Norm To Prevent Wildfires. Is There A Better Way?

A fire crew works near power lines and electrical towers at a fire on San Bruno Mountain near Brisbane, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) (Jeff Chiu/)

Fall fire weather isn't anything new for Californians. It's usually hot, dry and windy this time of year. What is new, however, is the state's largest power companies shutting off electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes in the hope of preventing their power lines from sparking wildfires.

It's an extreme option that could leave millions of people in the dark.

Here's how we got here, and here are some of the other options that could be available.

THERE ARE DANGEROUS, HIGH VOLTAGE POWER LINES RUNNING ALL OVER THE PLACE. WHY?

That's how we get our power. Instead of building power plants in the middle of our communities, power companies often generate energy at far-away sites and send it to us via overhead power lines.

One reason it's been done that way is air quality. No one really wants a super-polluting coal plant down the street from them.

Another reason is economics. It's been cheaper and more feasible to produce energy for a huge number of people at once than for each neighborhood, for example, to be their own energy producers.

CAN COMPANIES MAKE THE POWER LINES SAFER?

To a certain extent, yes. Following a series of deadly fires, likely caused by faulty equipment, California now requires wildfire mitigation plans from utilities, including SoCal Edison and PG&E.

Those plans include wrapping power lines in insulation and installing cameras in high-fire-risk areas. In late 2018, Southern California Edison said that it planned to spend $582 million on that kind of mitigation. On its website, it also talks about replacing wood poles with composite ones.

It's unclear how quickly such changes will roll out — or how much of a difference poles and insulated wires will make.


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HOW ABOUT PUTTING THE LINES UNDERGROUND?

It's a possibility. But it's much more technically difficult, expensive and time-consuming than installing overhead lines.

SoCal Edison estimates that underground lines can cost between 2.5 to 10 times as much as their current lines.

The exact cost and difficulty of installation depends on where they're installed.

In cities, installing them would mean unpopular service disruptions and navigating complex underground infrastructure that is already in place. In rural areas, there can be difficulties with terrain.

So at what point do risks outweigh the economic and social costs?

PG&E has decided to put underground lines in Paradise, California following the deadliest wildfire in state history. The project is underway and could take five years.

WHY CAN'T WE JUST GET OFF THE GRID?

If we wanted to move away from high voltage transmission lines flying over vulnerable areas from far off places, we theoretically could.

At a neighborhood level, we could create what are known as microgrids. Areas - like a university campus, or a series of city blocks - that could disconnect from the larger grid and still provide electricity to its community. That could be done by installing solar panels and battery backups.

"When you meet your electric demand only with local resources, it's possible, but the amount of energy storage you need increases and that makes it more expensive," said Brian Tarroja, professional researcher in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

Microgrids do exist, but usually just to compensate for blackouts. Military bases, for instance, have diesel generators that can power them temporarily if the power goes out.

I'VE ALREADY GOT SOLAR PANELS — YAY, NO BLACKOUTS FOR ME!

Sorry. The majority of people with solar panels will lose electricity if there's a blackout.

That's because the electricity that they produce is normally fed back into the grid, while any that they need is pulled from it. Meaning, if the electricity goes away, there's nothing to power their homes.

There are ways around that though.

Homeowners can buy battery backups that can both store energy and provide power. However, they need special systems that can switch back and forth from the grid to the battery backup. And they're expensive.

"If you're really rich, you can go 100 percent off the grid with all of these local systems. But most of us are not," said Tarroja.

As an example, the Tesla Powerwall system offers an option for homeowners to use batteries, alone. Per its site, it's about $20,000 for a smaller off-grid package.

There are incentives, but until there's even bigger adoption of the tech that lowers the price, going completely off the grid will be cost prohibitive to most people.

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