Evolving Power Grid Operations Amid California’s Changing Climate

Our society has become increasingly concerned with its impact on the environment, but how we contend with the effects of a changing climate is a complex and altogether scary question. As we explore and understand this situation, it’s likely that any solution to combat climate change will have a larger effect on us all.

With this in mind, the Planet OS Datahub seeks to provide a repository of the world’s best weather, climate, and environmental datasets. Our API is the gateway to a world of data needed to assess and solve many of today’s leading climate questions.

This week we have chosen to focus on the lasting effect of the Sonoma County fires within the state of California, specifically on homeowners, the public utility companies, and the government. We backdrop this exploration by demonstrating how one might use the Planet OS Datahub to explore the temperature and precipitation change within the state over the past 39 years.

While the Sonoma Fires are just one recent instance of how climate change exacerbates the residual impact on our society, we found that it might be an indication of a larger trend.

Using the Planet OS Datahub and the recently onboarded European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) Era-Interim dataset, our team of climate and data scientists analyzed the mean temperature and precipitation change in California since 1979, to get a better understanding of the environmental situation when these fires occurred.

The graph above illustrates that the annual mean temperature is climbing, while annual precipitation, detailed in the graph below, is decreasing.

Our findings suggest that across large swaths of California a year round fire season will probably become the new norm. The implications are numerous but this post we will focus on exploring how utilities will address this fire risk.

5,000 Homes & $82 Million Later

Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, is currently being held responsible for the fires that caused the death of twenty four people, the destruction of over 5,000 homes, and the burning of 137 miles of Sonoma County.

According to an article in the Mercury News, the fires have already cost PG&E $82 Million, which although quite significant, could potentially be just a fragment of the eventual total cost. This past December, PG&E temporarily suspended paying out dividends to their shareholders because they were unsure of the full extent of their liability.

The Repricing Issue

Repricing power, based on regional fire risk, is a particularly sensitive issue in the rural parts of the state, especially as many people are moving to these areas where the cost of living is lower. Still there is some logic to it; the future cost of implementing preventative measures around the power-line induced fires is anticipated to skyrocket.

Michael Picker, President of California’s Public Utilities Commission, summarized this policy in a question,

“Should we actually start to charge differentially for the use of the distribution system for those sections that are in the high-fire-hazard zone and people who choose to live there?”

Should we actually require taxpayers in high-risk fire zones pay more for power usage?

In the past, this has been something that power companies have been hesitant to implement but with changing times come changing policies. Understanding the areas of the state where, historically, temperatures have risen and precipitation has declined could be a good way to begin calculating fire risk, which could eventually influence power price.

Fire Prevention

Utility driven fire prevention will likely increase in coming years due to the cost associated with fire liability. This is especially true in California where utilities have been unsuccessful loading their costs onto taxpayers. Roughly a year ago, the California Public Utilities Commission denied the request by San Diego Gas and Electric to shift a damage cost of $379 million to taxpayers.

Recently, they even enlisted the help of the state to predict high risk fire areas. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection created a map documenting the portions of California with the highest risk of wildfires, with a special focus on those areas affected by drought and tree death brought on by bark beetles. This map, overlaid by electricity distribution assets is planned to help utilities abide by a new set of rules that are expected to increase costs associated with fire prevention tactics like tree trimming and brush removal. Understanding mean temperature and precipitation is imperative to understanding which areas are at a higher risk for fire and ultimately where preventative tactics must be specifically focused.

In conclusion, a better understanding of environmental conditions, including temperature and precipitation trends, is critical to properly assess and identify potential at-risk regions. By providing efficient access to environmental data such as the ECMWF Era-Interim dataset, the Planet OS Datahub makes it easy to analyze long-term environmental trends and inform meaningful policies and preventative measures.


Want to learn more about the Planet OS Datahub? Simply create a free account and try it out! Have additional questions or need help getting started? Join our Slack channel to connect with our team or contact us via the chat tool on the website.

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