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The West’s power grid fails as wildfires hit Utah, Oregon and California

Why does the electricity go out when a storm or wildfire hits? And what are states doing to prepare for it?

A crew from MidAmerican Energy, a power company based in Iowa, help restore power in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Residents and utility companies are continuing to clean up after severe winds hit the Wasatch Front on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
A crew from MidAmerican Energy, a power company based in Iowa, helps restore power in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Residents and utility companies are continuing to clean up after severe winds hit the Wasatch Front on Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Electricity has felt like a precious resource for people across the West lately.

Hurricane level winds knocked down lines leaving over 150,000 people in northern Utah without power. In Oregon and California, power was shut off as a last resort to prevent potentially severed power lines from sparking wildfires. Last month, a heat wave led to rolling blackouts across California.

Humanity may have figured out how to build a functional jetpack, created phones that comprehend human voices, and learned how to edit genes, but maintaining the power grid in the face of increasingly extreme weather events remains an unsolved problem.

As Gregory Reed, director of the Energy GRID Institute wrote in the Hill, “Overhauling the power grid would be an enormous endeavor — a modern-day equivalent of building the 1940s highway system across the country — but it is necessary.”

By one estimate, fixing the electrical grid would cost about $5 trillion.

Why does the electricity go out when a storm or wildfire hits? And what are states doing to prepare for a world where wildfires, heat and stronger hurricanes are becoming the new normal?

The aging grid

In the 2017 infrastructure report card, an analysis conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers every four years, America’s energy system earned a dismal D+. One reason is that many of the country’s power lines were built in the 1950s and 60s and only designed to last about 50 years.

The majority of the electricity infrastructure was also built “for past or current climate conditions,” according to a report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and not prepared for those conditions to change. Extreme weather, from heavy rain to heat waves, is the No. 1 cause of most outages. And from 2003-2012, 80% of power outages were caused by the weather, according to a report from Climate Central.

These kinds of weather events are happening more often and at a greater intensity.

The 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people and burned over 150,000 acres in and around Paradise, California, was sparked by a hundred-year-old transmission line. An investigation published by The Wall Street Journal found that the incident wasn’t a one off, but that many of PG&E’s aging lines could present a risk.

“We have known for a long time that we are dealing with aging and antiquated infrastructure,” Reed told the outlet.

That aging and antiquated infrastructure is increasingly at risk and often overwhelmed by record-breaking heat waves.

Flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, Calif., on Dec. 16, 2017
Mike Eliason, Santa Barbara County Fire Department via Associated Press

Coping with an unreliable system

In California, where power outages during wildfire season will continue to be the norm for at least the next decade, there’s been a spike in sales of backup generators.

Some people are also purchasing batteries to store energy — a buffer against the blackouts that affect even solar-powered homes when the grid is shut down. However, these batteries alone can cost upward of $10,000.

There’s some cause for concern that those who can afford to will “defect” from the greater grid, leaving lower-income residents without power. As energy and climate change reporter David Roberts put it in an article for Vox: “As wealthier people begin generating and storing more of their own power, partially or wholly defecting from the grid, they will be less invested in the grid’s health,” both financially and politically. There may be less incentive to invest in systems that provide power for everyone.

In states that aren’t experiencing blackouts as frequently, there are a few simpler (and less expensive) steps consumers can take to be prepared, including:

  • Have a cooler and ice on hand for perishables.
  • Make sure you have at least a half tank of gas.
  • Keep a flashlight and spare batteries handy.
  • Have a battery-powered or hand-crank radio.
  • Turn off/disconnect appliances like the stove.

These are short-term options. If blackouts ramp up across the West, longer-term solutions will be needed.

What are the solutions?

One analysis by McKinsey, a consulting firm, recommended hardening the electrical grid, decentralizing power generation, investing in microgrids, and using more up-to-date predictions in light of climate change.

“Grid hardening” essentially means making electric infrastructure more resistant to extreme weather events. One form of “grid hardening” is burying power lines, but it’s not cheap. According to an article in The Conversation by Theodore Kury, director of Energy Studies for the Public Utility Research Center, it can cost about $1 million per mile (about five times the cost of overhead lines).

Firefighters work to put out hot spots under power lines on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, after a wildfire destroyed homes and outbuildings in Graham, Wash., overnight south of Seattle.
Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

PG&E in California has been adding weather stations to improve forecasting, and removing vegetation around power lines.

Microgrids, defined as “a local energy grid with control capability” by the Department of Energy, can be powered by “gas, steam and wind turbines, generators and solar power,” according to Pew. During repairs or weather events that affect the broader grid, homes or communities that use a microgrid can generate electricity independently.

All solutions are going to require an investment as the country’s power lines grow older.

Spending on public infrastructure has been decreasing over the past decade according to Brookings (from 2007-2017 spending decreased by $9.9 billion in real terms, taking into account the rising costs of materials). While money spent on repairs has increased, spending on new or “capital” projects has not.

But repairing the nation’s infrastructure could be a form of investment that could help an economy crippled by the coronavirus. Some have been calling for a Depression-era style New Deal. In an opinion piece in Bloomberg, columnist Noah Smith wrote, “FDR built infrastructure across the country, including the famous Tennessee Valley Authority; this not only helped plug the hole in aggregate demand, it provided long-term economic benefits as well.” Smith concluded that “FDR’s legacy is thus a model for modern-day leaders to build on.”

Whether or not action is taken at the federal level, as extreme weather continues to batter aging power lines, states across the country will be forced to deal with outages one way or another. Fire and wind won’t wait.