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Electric Grid Needs Fire Protection In Age Of Catastrophic Fires



California’s electric grid is in dire need of fire protection, as illustrated with recent blazes such as this year’s Camp Fire, which charred more than 150,000 acres and is the deadliest fire in California history.

During a November webinar, Larry Dale, an energy economist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, presented key research findings from his report that analyzed risks posed by wildfires to electricity transmission and distribution in California.

The research was funded by the California Energy Commission as part of California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment.

Dale discussed how anticipating changes in climate and grid development can prevent costly damages, while preventing equipment malfunctions that spark fires.

As the climate shifts, California will see longer and more frequent wet and dry periods. Wildfires will be a major concern for the electric grid with models predicting that the Sierra Nevada region will have the highest wildfire risk by 2049, along with the expanding outlying areas of Los Angeles, Sacramento, and the Bay Area, Dale said.

This will result in a rise in the cost of fire-related damages. Outage impact costs can reach millions or billions of dollars, with between $1 and $2 million dollars lost per 24-hour outage, according to the report.

The report said utilities lost between $44 and $88 million from 2003 to 2016 in generation costs. Wildfire-related damages to transmission and distribution exceeded $700 million from 2000 to 2016 in select areas, according to the report.

The location of electrical grid transmission paths, along with future path expansion, are significant factors in evaluating and avoiding fire risk, Dale said.

Fringe areas, or border areas between developed and undeveloped land, are a great threat to fire safety. Urban interiors have the lowest risk, while structures in fringe areas are at high risk, he said.

Dale said the Camp Fire was the intersection of location, transmission, and fringe area risk. Paradise, which is in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is sparsely populated, and surrounded by forest fringe.

While the next half-century has many uncertainties with expanding electrical infrastructure, adaptation presents the best option for utilities. In upcoming decades, allocating resources to urban planning will become a crucial investment, Dale said.

Photo courtesy of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

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California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission is the state's primary energy policy and planning agency created by the Legislature in 1974.
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