Home Business Utility-ignited wildfires are becoming a national problem

Utility-ignited wildfires are becoming a national problem

by SuperiorInvest

After a utility pole fell and sparked a wildfire, Frank King and his family ran to escape when electrical transformers exploded around their homes near the Oregon coast. A bright red glow was visible in the rearview mirror for miles.

The fire three and a half years ago destroyed 300 homes in Otis, Oregon, including the one where King, a 101-year-old World War II veteran, had lived in for nearly three decades.

“A lot of the things that reminded me of the good things in my life are gone,” said King, who believes things could have been different if his utility company, PacifiCorp, had cut its power lines before a major storm. of wind. “It takes a terrible toll on me.”

Large wildfires started by power lines and other utility equipment were, not long ago, considered something that primarily occurred in California. But these disasters are increasingly occurring in many more places as forces driven by climate change, such as extreme heat and drought, wreak havoc on power grids that were not built or upgraded to withstand them.

Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based utility, recently acknowledged that its equipment likely caused the Smokehouse Creek Fire last month in the Texas Panhandle. In August, Hawaiian Electric said one of its power lines had caused the devastating fire in Lahaina, on the island of Maui. And this month, a jury ordered PacifiCorp to pay $42 million to 10 families who lost their homes in the fire that forced King to flee his home over Labor Day weekend 2020.

In all of these cases, the utility companies argued that they were not negligent and should not be penalized for the fires their equipment had caused.

Most climate experts expect that global warming will make wildfires much more likely, even in places not previously considered at risk, such as rainforests and wetlands. While wildfires can be started in many ways, utility companies with their networks of cables and transformers are a major source of concern.

The industry says it is working to reduce fire risk with several approaches, including burying power lines, a very expensive option, and using cheaper tools, such as sensors and software, to shut off power when fires are likely.

But industry critics, including homeowners and some lawmakers, say the industry is not doing enough to prevent those fires.

“There is an unwillingness in this industry to adapt,” said Cody Berne, a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, who represents Mr. King and other wildfire survivors. “It's criminal incompetence.”

Utility executives say the rapid escalation of climate-induced disasters has made it difficult to manage millions of miles of towers, poles and cables in a system more than 100 years old.

“Past risk is really no longer a good indicator of future risk,” said Scott Aaronson, senior vice president of safety and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group. “We are seeing a rapid change in extremely severe weather. “It's discouraging.”

Electricity costs have risen sharply in recent years as utilities have responded to extreme weather and growing demand for energy. The industry is spending billions of dollars to bury power lines, cover wires, prune and remove trees and bushes, and purchase weather stations, cameras and other equipment to better monitor and control electrical equipment.

But not all responses to climate change have to be expensive. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that the risk of utility-caused wildfires could be reduced by up to 75 percent by using sensors already installed at many utilities and upgrading fire safety systems. company software.

Those changes would automatically shut down parts of the utility's network within milliseconds when tree branches, animals or other objects cause problems with power lines. Using this technology, known as fast travel, is much cheaper and easier than putting power lines underground, an approach that several large Western utilities are also taking.

Burying power lines can cost between $3 million and $4 million per mile. These projects can take years to be approved, developed and completed. By comparison, fast travel technology costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per mile, and includes installing equipment and sending utility crews to inspect circuits before power is restored, the Berkeley researchers said.

“There are opportunities for innovation that could continue to reduce risk,” said Duncan Callaway, professor of energy and resources at the university.

Callaway has been analyzing the wildfire prevention efforts and costs of Pacific Gas & Electric, which has 5.5 million electric customers, more than any other utility in a single state. While PG&E and other utilities in the West use fast travel, which he calls “a no-brainer,” Callaway said he didn't know how many others did.

Arshad Mansoor, president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, agrees that fast travel is an important solution, but added that other tools, such as low-orbit satellites, could help utilities Quickly detect problems and assess conditions without shutting off power.

“The first thing we need to do is implement this early warning system globally,” Mansoor said.

In Oregon, neither automated technology nor utility employees preemptively shut off power that September weekend in 2020, even though forecasters had warned for days of torrential winds and 90-degree heat. A falling power pole sparked a fire on Echo Mountain, near the coast in central Oregon. It was one of 30 fires that burned 1.2 million acres in the state that weekend, killing nine people and destroying 5,000 homes and businesses.

Jim Holland, a 40-year-old chef, lost the house he and his wife, Briana, had bought (their first) just nine months earlier. The Hollands and Mr. King, a neighbor, have rebuilt with insurance money and other help, but they have also filed lawsuits seeking compensation from PacifiCorp. Many in the community are still so traumatized that they become nervous about any smoke rising, even if it is just from a barbecue. The area is still marked by landslides, charred power poles and burned trees with peeling bark.

“It feels like we're living in rubble,” Holland said. “It is no longer what it was. There are people with glassy eyes, wondering what happened to their lives.”

For many Oregonians, it has been difficult to understand how a state known for its rainforests became a tinderbox.

Last year, a wildfire devastated a critical rainforest that includes a watershed that supplies water to a million people in the Portland metropolitan area and a hydroelectric dam.

“If you've been here a long time, like I have, you can see that climate change is real,” said Mingus Mapps, a Portland city commissioner who oversees water, transportation and environmental services. “It was a fire that happens once every thousand years. “It was terrifying.”

Lightning lit that fire. But Mapps, a Democratic mayoral candidate, said the city was also concerned about the risk of fire from electrical equipment.

For utility companies, fires also pose potentially devastating financial risks due to lawsuits filed by homeowners and their insurance companies. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after racking up billions of dollars in liability for several wildfires, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed the city of Paradise, California.

Aaronson, an executive at the industry trade group, said utilities had learned from the traumatic California wildfires. But he noted that utility equipment caused less than 10 percent of wildfires nationwide.

“We are working to reduce that number even further,” Aaronson said. “There are tens of thousands of kilometers of transmission infrastructure. “There are millions of kilometers of distribution.”

Extreme weather conditions have made it difficult to ensure that every part of the electrical system is prepared for climate change. One improvement some companies are making is greater use of fast travel technology.

PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, said it had begun using the technology for wildfire prevention in 2021, a year after the Echo Mountain wildfire, although the technology had existed for many years.

But using tools like quick shutoff or public safety power shutoffs, which California utilities have used when fire risk in an area is expected to be high, can be unpopular because they leave residents and businesses without electricity. Utilities say they prefer approaches that keep the lights on.

Allen Berreth, PacifiCorp's vice president of wildfire mitigation operations, said that while the company was using fast travel and other tools, it also planned to bury many more power lines.

“Underground operation means there are no power outages for public safety reasons,” Berreth said.

Berkshire Chairman and CEO Warren E. Buffett told investors in February that he expected wildfire losses at his company's utility subsidiaries to increase in coming years. He also warned that utilities would need to spend much more money on fire prevention, spending that energy experts say will increase electric rates.

“The end result for the utility industry may be ominous,” Buffett said. “When the dust settles, America's energy needs and resulting capital spending will be staggering.”

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