We pride ourselves on our infrastructure. We still tell ourselves stories that we have good roads, good bridges, good electrical distribution systems. Even if we are slowly admitting (some faster than others) that we don’t. This is having an economic and national security effect in the nation. Our bridges are crumbling, our roads are full of potholes, and we have brownouts regularly. Some of these brownouts are self-caused.
I grew up in a nation where this was common. We knew that we had to have candles, later flashlights at home. Why? Power went out, at times with perverse regularity. So a battery-operated radio, and flashlights were a way to keep ourselves entertained. It’s a bad habit from those days, we have a few battery-operated radios, and flashlights, which we keep handy. They are not in a drawer, they are handy. These habits have proven useful a few times. When the power went out in all of Southern California I found myself lending radios to neighbors, and that flashlight was useful. Many of my neighbors were surprised that without power, for the most part, their internet devices were useless. Increasingly I am reminded of that youth, in one of the largest cities in the world. What do I mean by this? Pacific Gas and Electric is about to turn the power off in large swaths of northern California to prevent wildfires. Granted, Paradise was their responsibility and started at a facility of theirs. Mind you, maintenance and clearance left a lot to be desired. San Diego Gas and Electric does this regularly as well. In fact, every utility in California does this. Why? Liability and the fact that wildfires at times have a start around their distribution network. This is especially the case in rural areas of the state. And we know that fires are starting more frequently, are more intense and more damaging. Paradise will hardly remain a record-breaker as the decades go by.
We know this. The Cedar fire in San Diego was a record-breaker, and among the largest fires in the state’s history. We have seen a few more fires that have grown larger. None has been as destructive as last year's Paradise. But as the years go by and the climate emergency continues to take hold, other fires will be as destructive, or more. Part of this is that we continue to grow more urban sprawl into the wild-urban interface, putting more people and property at risk. But partly it is a warming planet.
We need to mitigate the danger, which we are failing to do. Instead, the utilities are turning off the power in rolling brownouts. Increased liability is a strong motivator for this. The Paradise fire may drive PG&E into bankruptcy. SDG&E did all it could to have ratepayers ultimately cover the cost of the Cedar fire. They lost all legal remedies, with the last desperate gambit an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. They know that this means less profit for their investors. And all these companies care for is not the customer, but the balance sheet.
Fires are a reality in the west. We also know experts recommend retreat from the coasts, which many cities are fighting due to decreasing property values. But mitigation is not limited to that. We need to build for fires, and new standards are making this somewhat of a reality.
However, there is one area where we still are not doing any mitigation. This has to do with the electric grid. It also involves our almost religious faith in the power of the free market. This is the reason utilities were privatized, to begin with. The promise was that we would get better service which would be cheaper as well. Let us be clear: Service is not better, and we pay some of the highest rates in the country. Yet, our utilities cannot do basic mitigation. They have installed metal poles, replacing wooden poles in the backcountry. They argue this is full mitigation, and while they are correct, as this is partial, it is doing it on the cheap. During a major wildfire, those poles will still get damaged, and need replacing. It’s not like the metal is immune to heat distortion or damage. Fires burn at high temperatures. If you do not believe me, just take a look at the remains of engine blocks pooling under vehicles. Or for that matter, pools of melted aluminum. The same will happen to these poles, hence the need to replace them. More likely will survive though.
They also tell us that they are getting ready for the upcoming emergency (it’s here) and see, they are doing something! In reality, there is one measure both the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and legislators seem gun shy about mandating. Why? It will cost billions and if there is something none of these groups want is to affect short them profits. This is to bury the lines. This is what advanced economies, that ironically have not privatized utilities, have done. It is not just about wildfires. It is about snow, wind events, rains and even floods. Distribution cables that underground survive most of these far better than over the air utilities and require less maintenance. The cost to bury them is about ten times (average) than just fixing them, or even replacing wooden poles for metal ones. There are a few bonus points when you bury the lines.
The first and most obvious is that it takes these things off the environment. A lot of people complain that the lines look ugly and ruin the aesthetics of the backcountry. Incidentally, this is one reason SDG&E buried lines in San Diego proper. There are less obvious benefits until you think about it. If you bury the lines, they will not spark into vegetation. If you do it correctly, a fire, they will happen anyway, will burn over the lines and you should not lose network integrity. This will make the recovery of affected areas faster. The only exposed areas are at the terminus when they come in contact with homes. And there is a bonus: They will not have to turn off the power when we get fire weather. So they can keep making money, and people who need that power to keep wells going, and medicines from going back…It will be fine.
Another bonus point is that this will reduce or eliminate deaths by electrocution. This is not just limited to utility workers, but also tree trimmers, and after major emergencies will reduce the number of live wires on roadways.
Our lawmakers and the PUC resist doing this. It is almost as if they get money (they do) to look the other way. They also get lobbied often. This still speaks to the power of utilities that are far more interested in short term profit than long term mitigation. In the meantime, we are becoming a third world nation in yet one more aspect. This is the delivery of essential services to rural areas of the country. And if you think that living in a city will protect you, service degradation will affect you too. Stock up on radios and flashlights.
Changes are afoot, as governments start passing public choice. This will bring the competition that we need as ratepayers. However, the power still goes over the same lines maintained by these utilities. They will lose customers. As they do, they will have even less money to maintain those grids. It is time, well beyond time, to bring all these utilities back to the public sector. The only reason California utilities are meeting green energy targets is legislation starting with AB32. If they were not forced to do it, they would have never built solar and wind farms in rural areas. With the rise of a distributive network, they will be under even greater pressure by investors to create profit. This means that these companies will continue to think about the next quarter and not the next ten years. As we mitigate against a warming world, we need to move away from this private model. It is proving an obstacle to what needs to be done.
In the meantime, we need to work on our national infrastructure. It is failing, But we also need to prioritize two areas: The transportation network, and the electric grid. Both are needed from a national security perspective. In the meantime, yes, my radio is ready, and so is my flashlight.