Take your pick: Blackouts or wildfires.
That’s the grim choice many in California are fearing as the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, says the effort to proactively shut off power to prevent wildfires could continue for a decade.
But as fires roar across the state, some local leaders are eyeing ways they can become less reliant on PG&E’s vulnerable grid system that's to blame for igniting some of the deadliest blazes in state history.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (D) is proposing numerous alternatives that include building “microgrids” — smaller grid systems that can collect, store and supply power locally — and expanding the use of solar power. These are measures that could help California residents keep the power on during outages as the state simultaneously moves toward climate goals by reducing contributions to climate-warming emissions that can help fuel these very wildfires.
Liccardo announced last week that the city would receive $500,000 from the state to help cover costs associated with the power outages — and he wants to use some of that money to build up microgrids in San Jose.
Resilience is the key word for California. I'm grateful to Gov. Newsom and our partners at State, like Sen. Beall, who’ve worked to allocate 500k in funding to @CityofSanJose—helping us better protect our community's safety from PG&E’s ongoing blackouts. https://t.co/ZBS3LsRFKp— Sam Liccardo (@sliccardo) November 1, 2019
Microgrids can provide power to communities when the larger systems — PG&E’s power lines in this case — cannot. These power islands can get their energy from a variety of sources, including solar power, which can also make them an environmentally friendly solution. Liccardo wrote a memo last month in part pitching a city-owned utility that would develop microgrids and expand the use of solar power as the city assesses ways to become less dependent on PG&E.
“The current model of energy generation and delivery looks pretty bleak. We just heard from the CEO of PG&E who said power shut-offs [will continue] for ten years,” Liccardo said in an interview. “We don’t have any choice but to innovate. The existing infrastructure and technology will fail us.”
By reducing bureaucratic obstacles to microgrid development & exploring local control over power distribution, we can provide solutions to create a more resilient power grid, and avert a dystopian future of unpredictable PG&E blackouts. https://t.co/zw4Gx6jzHS— Sam Liccardo (@sliccardo) October 18, 2019
The mayor acknowledged building out microgrids in San Jose will be very costly. In a news conference on Friday, he called it a “multiple billion-dollar proposition.” “Nonetheless, we need to get started,” he added.
Liccardo’s ambitious ideas for San Jose also come as California clashes with the federal government, which has criticized how state leaders are handling the wildfire threat. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) scolded President Trump for his latest attack over the weekend that included erroneous claims about the causes and potential solutions for fires, and called out the president’s refusal to accept climate change.
You don’t believe in climate change. You are excused from this conversation. https://t.co/PSt8N39Er5— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) November 3, 2019
State leaders are now insisting they need to take the lead on climate action. “As a policymaker seeking to push the boundaries, it helps enormously to have a community in Silicon Valley that understands the value of sailing forward,” Liccardo said. “There are plenty of communities that would not give their elected leaders any room to take risks, but I feel risk-taking is part of our culture and has to be a critical part of our path out of the current debacle.”
As residents worry about being left in the dark during planned outages, Craig Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit group Clean Coalition, which advocates for local energy, said it’s understandable for communities to turn to local power sources.
“These cities just want to be in control of their own destiny, and part of what they want to ensure is that they have resilience in their communities,” he said.
Some businesses and communities in California have taken advantage of this approach. In Fremont, Calif., three fire stations have their own grid systems that get power from solar panels, batteries and generators. My Post colleague Marie C. Baca reported on businesses that have started to rely on solar power and microgrids to keep the lights on during blackouts.
Peter Asmus, a microgrid expert at market research firm Navigant Research, said solar panels and batteries have become increasingly popular sources of power.
“You can have wind power, you can have hydropower, you can have basically anything you want in a microgrid,” he said. But research shows “over time, the two most popular resources going into microgrids are definitely solar plus storage.” He said that will only accelerate as costs decline for clean energy sources such as solar panels and batteries.
And unlike in other parts of the country where grids may rely entirely on carbon-emitting fossil fuel power sources, including generators, Asmus said there's an emphasis on clean energy in California, a state that has pledged to make its electricity grid carbon free by 2045.
Sascha von Meier, the director of electric grid research at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, said microgrid systems, especially ones that include solar panels, are a multipronged solution.
“On one hand it helps in the move toward generating as much of our energy from carbon neutral sources: Every kilowatt of solar that gets installed is a small step toward meeting our carbon goals,” she said, adding that it also addresses the need for adapting to climate change. “There’s just more uncertainty. There could be all kinds of weird weather scenarios and having a local power supply for essential needs — it’s just a no-brainer thing to do.”
— Another vulnerability during power outages: When PG&E has cut power to the region, many air quality measurement stations shut off, too. That left northern California residents checking websites only to find inaccurate or confusing information, The Post’s Reed Albergotti reports. None of the 250 official air monitoring stations can operate on backup power. The recent fires have “laid bare the drawbacks to an air quality monitoring system designed more for measuring large swaths of land over time than for providing real-time, localized data that is more valuable in disasters like wildfires,” Albergotti adds. “It usually takes more than an hour for government monitors to record bad air, for instance, enough time for conditions to go from perfect to dangerous.”
— Will California ever stop burning? My Post colleague Dan Zak has a poignant dispatch on what it’s like in the Golden State, which feels constantly ablaze. “Over the decades, Californians have gotten good at dealing with wildfires. There are brush-clearing regulations and no-parking rules on narrow roads during high-risk weather. In Malibu, mansions get built with underground water cannons that rise to meet a blaze, and residents train to activate hydrants on their streets,” he writes. “…But the fires still start, and the fires still come, and panicked Angelenos still chuck the good silver into their saltwater pools before fleeing.”
- By the numbers: “In the past two years, at least 17,000 wildfires have burned 5,000 square miles of California. Since 1972, the state’s annual burn area has quintupled, which is probably driven by human-caused global warming, according to a research article published in August in the journal Earth’s Future. Large autumn fires will probably become more frequent.”
- This fire season could last into December: Large patches of the state are primed to burn through the fall and winter. Meteorologists say there could be big fires in December, with a possible delay to any rain season that would curb the risk, Diana Leonard writes for The Post. “This may be a long fall and winter across California for both the fire-fighting community and the general public in terms of coping with the threat of fires,” reads the latest Predictive Services wildfire outlook from the Southern California Geographic Coordination Center.
— Trump makes it official on Paris climate accord: The administration sent an official notification to the United Nations that it plans to withdraw from the Paris climate deal next fall, a long-anticipated move that follows Trump’s ongoing criticism of the accord and insistence that the United States would exit as soon as possible, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. Monday was the first day the administration could actually give its one-year notice. “In international climate discussions, we will continue to offer a realistic and pragmatic model — backed by a record of real-world results — showing innovation and open markets lead to greater prosperity, fewer emissions and more secure sources of energy,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The reaction: “While the world will not be surprised, it’s a sad reminder of where the world’s former leader on climate change now stands,” Susan Biniaz, a former State Department climate negotiator, told Dennis in an email. In a statement, former vice president Al Gore pointed out that if a Democrat wins the White House, the United States could reenter the accord. “Despite the president’s best efforts, the U.S. cannot officially withdraw from the Paris agreement until one day after next year’s presidential election. And even if he follows through, it would take just 30 days for a new president to get us back in. This decision is ultimately in the hands of the voters,” Gore said.
2020 candidates weigh in: Numerous candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination were quick to criticize the administration and use the moment to emphasize their climate policies. Former vice president Joe Biden called the administration's move "shameful." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Trump an "international embarrassment" and pledged to rejoin the deal, as did Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said Trump was "running away from our responsibilities. In an interview on MSNBC, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the Paris deal "should be viewed as a floor, not a ceiling."
— Another day, another rollback: The Environmental Protection Agency proposed to ease rules targeting how coal-burning power plants clean up toxic metals and ash and release them into waterways. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Dennis reported on the administration’s plans to scale back the rules this week. “The new proposals — the latest in a series of regulatory breaks granted by the administration for the sagging U.S. coal industry and for electric utilities using coal-fired power plants — reduces ‘heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,’ EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement,” per the Associated Press.
The reaction: Thomas Cmar, attorney for Earthjustice’s coal program said the administration’s move is “allowing the power industry to continue dumping toxic contaminants in our waterways at the expense of public health.” In a statement, Mustafa Santiago Ali, who previously led the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice said Trump’s EPA “continues to put people’s lives in danger and the natural resources we need to survive by weakening rules on coal ash, a silent killer in the air and as it seeps into people’s drinking water.”
— Schumer asks for investigation of Trump’s energy regulation nominee: The Senate’s top Democrat wants the Energy Department’s Office of the Inspector General to look into the supposedly “inconsistent and inaccurate ethics advice” given out by James P. Danly, who Trump picked to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
- The issue: Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) suggested in a letter sent Monday that Danly, who currently serves as FERC’s general counsel, has given out faulty ethics advice to commissioners that has impeded them from making timely regulatory decisions. Danly’s nomination hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is happening Tuesday.
- The bigger picture: Senate Democrats are upset Trump broke with tradition by nominating Danly, a Republican, without also picking a new Democrat for the commission. By law, FERC can have no more than three members of the president’s party.
— Sanders talking climate on the trail: Climate activist Isra Hirsi will join Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) during an event in Des Moines on Saturday. It’s part of Sanders’s plan to push a climate message on the campaign trail, Vox reports. Hirsi, who co-founded the Youth Climate Strike and is also Rep. Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn.) daughter, told Vox Sanders “probably has the most intensive climate plan on the circuit right now…I think a lot of young people are hearing Sanders’s message and waking up.” Misty Rebik, Sanders’s Iowa state director, said the campaign thinks “climate change is the way we win the caucuses. We have the biggest, most comprehensive plan around this. This is an issue that more and more Iowans can’t ignore.”
— Shimkus confirms retirement: Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who was weighing a delay to his retirement plans, said he still plans to depart. He said he had been asked by “local Republicans, party leaders in Washington DC and a bipartisan group of rank and file House members” to stick around to pursue the top Republican spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee after news that its chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) will retire. “After weighing the pros and cons, I have decided to reaffirm my plan to retire,” he said in a statement, Roll Call reports.
— Google workers call for climate action: More than 1,100 workers at Google signed on to a letter calling on the company to end contracts with fossil fuel companies and target zero emissions by 2030. The letter to Google’s chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, also calls for “zero funding for climate-denying or -delaying think tanks, lobbyists and politicians.” “We’re excited to keep building momentum as tech workers join millions of people all over the world acting boldly for a livable future,” senior technical writer Sharon Campbell-Crow told the Guardian.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to examine the nominations of James P. Danly, of Tennessee, to be a Member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Katharine MacGregor, of Pennsylvania, to be Deputy Secretary of the Interior.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on issues and legislation related to energy development on federal land on Thursday. The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) on energy resources in the global landscape on Thursday.
— He just took a DNA test: A stray puppy found in Wandiligong, a rural town in Victoria, Australia, turned out to be an Australian alpine dingo, an endangered species vulnerable to extinction, The Post's Kim Bellware reports.