In summary

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to deal with a changing climate with its web of decades-old poles and wires.

By Ted Lamm and

Ted Lamm is a climate policy researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, tlamm@law.berkeley.edu.

Ethan Elkind, Special to CalMatters

Ethan Elkind is a climate policy researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, eelkind@law.berkeley.edu.

As California communities confront the reality of emerging from coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, another inevitable crisis that also requires aggressive preventative action looms: wildfire season. 

In the face of this persistent threat, we need aggressive integration of clean energy technologies to power a reliable and resilient electricity grid for our homes, health care systems, transportation networks and supply chains. 

Californians are familiar with the ways that climate change is increasing our wildfire risk, with six of the top 10 most destructive fires in state history occurring in the past three years. California’s electrical grid stands in the middle of this increasingly complex predicament. 

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At least three of those fires were triggered by utility equipment, including the 2018 Camp Fire, which took 85 lives in the process of destroying 18,000 structures and the town of Paradise. 2019 brought widespread public safety power shut-offs and far less destructive fires throughout the state, but at the cost of new outage-related risks for vulnerable communities and residents – a trade-off we may be making for the next 10 years or more.

California’s electrical grid is getting cleaner, but it is still not well positioned to weather this changing climate. Today’s grid features a web of decades- and century-old poles and wires, even as the state obtains a record level of energy from cutting-edge solar and wind technology. 

Rural communities, residents reliant on medical equipment, older Californians, and low-income families are the most dependent on this aging system for their health and safety, as well as most likely to be vulnerable in the face of severe climate threats like wildfires and extreme heat. 

Compounding matters, coronavirus limitations on public gatherings will exacerbate these vulnerabilities, by limiting access to community facilities and shopping centers that might provide respite from heat and other climate events. And at the same time, we need a cleaner, decarbonized grid in order to help limit greenhouse gas emissions and avoid further climate damages, including to meet the state goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. 

Fortunately, a suite of established and emerging technologies can effectively advance the dual goals of reliability and decarbonization. Small-scale, distributed solar generation can provide power directly to homes and communities; energy storage like batteries can power essential uses during shutoffs; advanced electric vehicle charging technology and building energy management systems can optimize electricity usage when less costly renewable power is available; and microgrids can allow isolated communities and facilities to separate from the grid during system-wide power shutoffs. 

However, communities across the state will need significant policy and financial support to integrate these technologies at the necessary scale and pace to address our clean and resilient grid needs in the face of looming wildfire threats. State energy leaders have taken important steps, from a first-in-the-nation energy storage mandate to customer incentives for home battery installations. But additional action is needed to accelerate the transition to a clean, resilient grid, including:

  • Reforming electric utility regulation to encourage utility investments in clean, resilient grid technologies like microgrids, energy storage and distributed renewables;
  • Fast-tracking the deployment of distributed clean energy resources on the grid by requiring utility connection approvals as long as the technologies meet minimum safety requirements and share any grid upgrade costs among all applicants; and
  • Leveraging a range of private and public financing for these technologies beyond ratepayer dollars, such as bond financing and private sector investment in home and commercial batteries.

These recommendations are part of a broader, long-term effort to rapidly deploy the clean energy technologies needed for a clean and resilient grid for all Californians. While this investment will require upfront capital, the stark and growing cost of climate change in California – in human, environmental and economic terms – shows that these resilience investments and reforms can pay for themselves through avoided costs and outages. 

Californians have experienced the consequences of delayed action and investment over the past four months in the coronavirus context. Our urgent wildfire threat is yet another test we can’t afford to fail.

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Ted Lamm and Ethan Elkind are co-authors of the new report “Clean and Resilient: Policy Solutions for California’s Grid of the Future.”

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