The California wildfires are raising the risk of more electric-power blackouts because smoke and ash particles can block sunlight and settle on solar photovoltaic panels. California politicians have mandated that 60 percent of the state’s power must come from renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045. Renewables like solar and wind, however, only provide intermittent generation, despite their accounting for about a third of the state’s electricity. California has been shuttering its nuclear and natural gas plants that can provide power 24/7 and ramp up when demand surges or the output of renewable sources declines. As a result, California is starting to experience power shortages when the sun sets or its solar panels are shaded by clouds or smoke.
Recently, the smoky haze caused statewide solar generation to fall by a third. When that happens, California imports its power from neighboring states. But, as recent data have shown, that power is not always available, particularly when those states are also having heat waves or if wildfires are striking them too. Washington and Oregon are also experiencing severe wildfires, which could threaten power generators and transmission lines that run through forests. Also, aging power lines can stoke fires in dry, windy conditions, especially when utilities are forced to spend money to reach political renewable targets and divert funds that could otherwise go towards line maintenance.
California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) cut off power recently to 172,000 customers in northern California to prevent its power lines from starting a fire. Such preventive blackouts shield utilities from liability. Unfortunately, some California politicians believe the solution is to outfit homes with solar panels and batteries. Even Ernest Moniz, Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary, admitted that California’s solar and battery ambitions are pie-in-the-sky and that natural gas will be necessary for some time to ensure reliable power.
Hopefully, California politicians will realize that they need natural gas to ensure reliable power before it becomes too late and the state is driven economically backward. Already this summer California has shown that its grid is becoming more and more dependent on the weather. The state has also been told that the answer to the wildfires is forest management which states like Florida implement regularly. Controlled burns and other methods to limit the buildup of dead trees and brush that are the fuel for wildfires are not new techniques, and are clearly laid out in the science of silviculture. Fortunately, last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom may have come to his senses when he signed an agreement with the federal government to thin overgrown and dried brush on one million acres of land each year for the next five years. Unfortunately, it may not be soon enough and and in enough quantity to control these wildfires being fed with decades of forest mismanagement.
History of California Wildfires
Wildfires are not new to California. From spring through late autumn, California has dry, windy, and often hot weather conditions that can produce moderate to severe wildfires. It has been estimated that prior to 1850, about 4.5 million acres of forest and shrub land burned yearly in fires that lasted for months.
California land area totals about 100 million acres. Since 2000, the wildfire burns have ranged between 90,000 acres, or 0.09 percent, and 1,590,000 acres, or 1.59 percent of the total land of California. However, for this wildfire season, the burns have already surpassed those figures.
Wildfires in California are growing more dangerous because of the accumulation of wood fuel in forests, higher population and greater electricity transmission and distribution lines. At times, the wildfires are strengthened by dry winds, known as Diablo winds when they occur in the northern part of the state and Santa Ana winds when they occur in the south.
More than 350,000 people in California live in towns sited completely within zones deemed to be at very high risk of fire and over 2.7 million people live in “very high fire hazard severity zones.”
It is time for California to wake up to reality about its wildfires and its renewable energy pursuits. Its renewable energy mandates will result in economic collapse and power failures unless the state changes its strategy by ensuring sufficient back-up power to deal with the intermittency of its renewable energy. The state also needs to allow utilities to secure their power lines and reduce fire hazards, rather than riding them to invest more and more money in trendy but flawed renewable energy.
Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden also needs to learn from this lesson since he is pursuing a national “clean energy” standard by 2035—10 years before California’s 100 percent renewable standard. The only exception Biden is making is to include nuclear power, but nuclear plants are being shuttered in this country every year due to poor economics resulting from federal and state policies which force renewables into the system and wreak havoc with the 24/7 dependable power the nation’s citizens have every right to expect.