What The Pawnee Fire Tells Us About California Grid Vulnerability

by Anna Gretz
June 28, 2018

The Pawnee wildfire in California is still blazing as we head into a warm, windy weekend.

It’s no secret: Forest fires threaten the power grid.

The latest numbers show that the Pawnee fire has hit 13,700 acres in size, and is 40% contained (as of Thursday morning.)

In California, forest fires rage against the power grid… a network composed of a widespread web of wooden posts. Think about it.

This isn’t the last time CA will be hit hard with fires, and it’s not the first, either.

In 2013, a wildfire 150 miles east of San Francisco wreaked havoc on the electrical system. Even though the fire seemed a safe distance away, the fire threatened to interrupt the electrical and water supply for the entire city, forcing California Governor Jerry Brown to issue a state of emergency for San Francisco.

Wooden power lines are not the only reason why forest fire can shut down the power grid. Hydroelectric plants, like the ones that power much of San Francisco, are also susceptible to fire. In the case of the San Francisco fire, the plants had to be shut down because of their close proximity, rendering huge pockets of San Francisco powerless.

Australian bushfires have a had a similar impact on the Aussie grid, and the latest fire season has resulted in a huge push for a new kind of energy system, one that includes solar panels and energy storage for residential homes.

It’s no secret that the power grid is vulnerable. Our country’s current electrical grid system is not well-protected from a variety of elements, from forest fires to cyber attacks. Though some have proposed new ways to protect the electrical grid, like by putting it underground, we think the grid needs to be completely re-imagined. The clear, most elegant solution? The widespread use of solar power, and energy storage.

The Australian Solar Solution

After a rough bushfire season in Australia, authorities immediately started talking about putting power lines underground. The wooden poles and poorly-insulated lines were much too vulnerable to the bushfires, with the current infrastructure making Australians extremely vulnerable to a crisis caused by prolonged power outages. But as underground grid talks were underway, a new study suggested a much cheaper, and simpler option: solar power and battery storage.

The installation of solar power and home batteries, studies say, can completely eliminate the risk of electrical outages by fire at just a tenth of the price as other forms of grid restructuring, like underground lines. At the very least, Australian scientists say, residents could off-grid power during the days and weeks when there was a high fire risk, though there are obvious benefits for using solar and battery storage systems much more often. Solar panels, when coupled with home battery storage systems, can provide not only blackout protection and back-up power, but reliable, renewable power from the sun all year round.

The scientist behind this idea is University of Loughborough’s Michael Williamson, who has spent years crunching the numbers, and considering various solutions to the vulnerable grid. After taking an in-depth look at all options, Williamson is confident in the solar-plus-storage approach, and says that this idea is easily transferable to other fire=prone regions such as New South Wales, and you guessed it, California.

California’s Bright Solar Future

Williamson argues that southern California would also be an excellent place to implement widespread solar and energy storage usage to protect residential customers from widespread power outages. Bushfires and forest fires pose the same threat to an elongated, open-air power grid, and the current infrastructure is currently putting millions of grid-connected customers at risk.

California has a long history of power outages due to wildfire, not to mention earthquakes and other natural disasters. But California also has a long history of leading the country in green energy initiatives, and now is no exception. Recent major decisions have made it easier than ever for Californians to take advantage of incentives and install solar panels and energy storage systems of their own. Now is the perfect time for California to set up a new power infrastructure, especially in the residential sector, to protect households from the threats of prolonged power outages.

At this point, California has set residents up well to build up this protection themselves. The extension of retail-rate net metering and the Self-Generation Incentive Program are giving residents looking into solar power and energy storage a huge financial boost. Here’s a review of the benefits of these two programs:

California’s Net Metering Decision:

Net metering is a billing system that allows grid-connected solar customers to sell the power company any excess electricity they generate with their own solar panels, that they don’t need to use right away. Many households with solar panels generate a good deal of electricity during the day when the sun is at its peak, but don’t actually need to use the electricity very much in the middle of the day. Often, they’re out of the house entirely, and don’t need to run the washing machine or flip the light switches on until later in the evening. So rather than let that generated electricity go to waste, it gets transferred back into the traditional power grid, and used somewhere else. Net metering programs offer payment for this provided electricity, often in the form of credits that deduct from the customer’s power bill.

California recently voted to maintain retail-rate compensation for solar customers who want to sell power back to the grid. This is a huge victory for solar users (and the solar industry as a whole), and means that solar panel owners basically get paid for having their own solar energy system.

California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP):

The Self Generation Incentive Program, a way to motivate consumers to use alternative energy sources to generate and store their own electricity. The SGIP stands as the longest running and most successful programs of its kind in the country. In short, the program pays Californians for using certain renewable energy systems, like turbines, and also pays households with energy storage systems, like home batteries. We’re not talking about a few extra pennies, either. The SGIP pays energy storage users over a dollar per watt. This means that home battery owners in California not only enjoy backup power and blackout protection along with lower (or even non-existent) electricity bills… they also get paid.

The SGIP caps incentive payment at 3MW (which is a ton -- most residential systems max out under 20kWh), but there is no minimum eligibility system size. No matter how small of a renewable energy or energy storage system you’re looking at, you are eligible for money. Free money. After your incentive claim is completed and reviewed, Pacific Gas & Electric issues you a check within 30 days.

The SGIP has been extended all the way until January 1, 2021, giving you plenty of time to take advantage of some serious cash.

With California’s unique cocktail of grid vulnerabilities, it’s more important than ever to set yourself up with the clean, reliable power that solar panels and home batteries provide. And with the current financial incentives available through the SGIP and net metering policy, there’s never been a better time to invest in a brighter energy future. If you’re ready to jump in, let Swell guide you to all of the resources you need.