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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Don’t be fooled by the precipitation, the snowpack and the wildflowers. When winter ends, it’s unlikely that California’s iconic landscape will sustain the moisture to withstand the scorching summer and fall.

California has yet to recover from the 5-year drought that began in 2012. For four years, record wildfires have ravaged the state, including the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma in 2017, and the Camp Fire last year that wiped out the town of Paradise in Butte County. The 2019 wildfire season officially kicks off in mid-May, but California’s wildfire season is essentially year-round now.

So what happens when the next big wildfire hits?

State fire officials are already amassing new aircraft that can drop thousands of gallons of bright red flame retardant. Emergency responders are pre-positioning fire crews in high-threat areas even before a fire starts. State officials will no longer second guess the use of wireless emergency alerts that grab people’s attention by making smartphones vibrate and squawk.

The major investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—now plan to shut off power, even where fire risk is minimal, during red-flag weather warnings. It’s considered a public-safety measure of last resort, because a power outage can cut off internet access and make communication difficult for hospitals, firefighters and emergency personnel.

The utilities also plan to fireproof California’s electricity grid, a result of their equipment being implicated in so many recent disasters. That includes clearing brush and trees away from transmission lines, replacing wooden poles with metal ones, and using drones and weather monitoring stations to gauge danger via wind and smoke patterns.

Yet even these expensive precautions may not ward off the next towering inferno, say fire officials.

“I think we are better prepared,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “The real question is whether or not that’s enough.”


‘A Sense of Urgency’

Part of the problem is that California has been caught off guard by the new climate-driven fire seasons, amplified by longer hot summers and extended droughts. Seven of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have happened in the last five years.

“The fires are behaving so much differently than they have before,” Huston said, noting the new wildfires are “virtually impossible to fight” as they leap mountains and gallop for miles, creating their own weather systems. “You couldn’t have predicted this based on past fire.”

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told state lawmakers on Jan. 30 that climate-change-driven wildfires are happening much faster than anyone predicted. But for the state regulatory agency to enforce safety at the state’s eight investor-owned utilities, Picker said, he would need 15,000 to 20,000 new staff to police every electricity pole and wire. The agency has, roughly, a 1,300-member staff.

The CPUC regulates not only privately owned utilities from telecom to water, but also rail-crossing safety, limos and ride sharing. Historically, Picker’s role has been more like that of an administrative judge than a police chief.

“If you want to get the Legislature to allow me to be a total dictator, and make decisions overnight, I’m happy,” Picker elaborated to reporters afterward. “That’s not what our job is. We are like a technical court. People have to have their day in court. It’s not a fast process. Have you been in a court proceeding that took one day?”

But his answer on the challenges of enforcement frustrated lawmakers, on whom political pressure has mounted with every disaster. The CPUC is not known for swiftness. It took nine years to issue a statewide fire-threat map after Southern California fires, caused by Santa Ana winds whipping power lines, prompted commissioners in 2009 to demand one. It has laid out a two-month schedule just for reviewing fire-prevention plans utilities must submit under recent and hard-fought wildfire safety legislation.

After Picker’s testimony, Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood, a forensic dentist who represents fire-ravaged Santa Rosa, took to Twitter.

“I want to hear a sense of urgency,” he wrote. “We don’t have time for a standard bureaucratic approach.”


Amassing ‘More Tools’

Ultimately, the fire challenge involves painful long-term decisions such as how to reconcile the acute demand for California housing with the suddenly limited supply of land that isn’t in a high-risk fire zone.

Short-term, Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa is among those who hope incremental improvements might make a difference. He is proposing the commission work with Cal Fire and the Office of Emergency Services to improve coordination for turning off power in red-flag weather, alerting residents to evacuate and better targeting crews to fight fires. His Senate Bill 209 would establish an official, statewide California wildfire warning center.

“It would give us more tools in trying to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Dodd said.

Emergency officials also are studying past fires, and preparing. Survivors of the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties complained they had little or no warning when the flames flared up at night under dry windy conditions. Local officials opted against sending out a mass alert for fear of causing panic or hindering emergency responders.

“Everybody I talk to in our neighborhood pretty much either had family call or a neighbor knock on the door. I don’t know of anyone that got an emergency alert,” said Patrick McCallum, a higher education lobbyist who barely escaped his Santa Rosa home with his wife, Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki. “Worse, there were police and fire engines running around, but they were not allowed to put their alarms on.”

In coming weeks, the state is expected to issue clearer guidance to all 58 counties for issuing alerts and warnings to the public across multiple platforms. The new thinking is to over-communicate, rather than rely on the alerts of the 1980s sent over television and radio or ringing landlines.

“It is something people depend on to make decisions in a crisis,” OES’ Huston said.

The state also believes pushing out wireless emergency alerts on smartphones similar to an Amber Alert can now be done effectively without creating chaos. This simple weather warning was sent out to seven counties encompassing 22 million people in Southern California in December 2017 as a precaution after authorities saw dry windy conditions similar to the wine country fire two months earlier:

“Strong winds overnight creating extreme fire danger. Stay Alert. Listen to authorities.”

This fire season, Californians may see it again.


A Firefighting Air Force

Meanwhile, Cal Fire is beefing up its capabilities. Rather than waiting to respond to a wildfire, emergency personnel have shifted to pre-positioning strike teams before a fire even starts.

The switch comes at a price; Cal Fire’s expenses now already routinely exceed its budget. Last year’s fire spending set a new record, and the political climate has made the outlays difficult to question.

“That’s expensive, because you’re paying the same amount of money for firefighters whether they’re fighting a fire or sitting waiting for a fire to start,” Huston said. “But you have to weigh that against the potential for loss and the expense of a disaster.”

The state already boasts a formidable firefighting air force, featuring S-2T air tankers that dump 1,200 gallons of flame retardant and Huey helicopters for lifting fire crews in and out of steep terrain.

This spring, the Hueys will start to be replaced by more modern Black Hawks, the Army’s frontline utility helicopter. The first one is expected to be ready in May, said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

And over the next two years, Cal Fire will add seven C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Those will be retrofitted to carry between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of flame retardant.

“California will have one of, if not the largest, firefighting air forces in the world,” McLean said.


What About the Utilities?

At ground zero in much of the state are California’s investor-owned utilities and their spark-prone equipment. PG&E has vowed to expand power shut-off territory to as many as 5.4 million customers, up from 570,000 today. SCE is focused on better weather monitoring, adding 62 high-definition cameras and 350 micro weather stations as part of a broader $582 million safety plan.

And SDG&E, which has been most aggressive with more than $1 billion in safety upgrades, will continue to replace wood poles with steel poles, hire a helitanker on standby year-round, and contract with firefighters especially trained to put out electrical fires.

Yet there’s no statewide standard for deciding when the power should be shut off. Instead, participating utilities base decisions on temperature, wind, humidity and other factors. SDG&E has been lauded for its proactive use of public safety power shutoffs.

PG&E’s rollout has been less reassuring.

Two days before the most destructive wildfire in California history ignited, 62,000 PG&E customers in eight counties, including Butte, were warned that their power could be turned off as a precautionary measure. This was sent at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 6: This is an important safety alert from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Extreme weather conditions and high fire-danger are forecasted in Butte County. These conditions may cause power outages in the area of your address. To protect public safety, PG&E may also temporarily turn off power in your neighborhood or community. If there is an outage, we will work to restore service as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Cal Fire reports the Camp Fire ignited around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8.

PG&E never shut off power. In fact, the utility went on to issue cancellation notifications hours after the deadly blaze started. Sent at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8: “This is an important safety update from Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Weather conditions have improved in your area, and we are not planning to turn off electricity for safety in the area of your address.”

PG&E wouldn’t comment on its decision. The California Public Utilities Commission would say only that it is investigating when asked if the state was looking at why the utility didn’t initiate a blackout.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

As a publicly traded corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric reported $17.1 billion a year in revenues from its electric and gas operations. After operating costs, expenses and taxes, it still made out with a profit of $1.7 billion last year.

So why has California’s largest utility filed for bankruptcy?

PG&E may be solvent, but it is facing a cash-flow problem as a byproduct of $30 billion in potential liabilities from a series of catastrophic wildfires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018. In the company’s own words, the board has determined Chapter 11 “is ultimately the only viable option to restore PG&E’s financial stability to fund ongoing operations and provide safe service to customers.”

“A company the size of PG&E needs access to the capital markets, and right now, it’s under stress,” said Robert Labate, a San Francisco bankruptcy attorney with Holland and Knight, which has clients that do business with PG&E. “This is a way of getting breathing room.”

PG&E is being sued by thousands of wildfire victims for property damage, medical expenses and a heap of punitive and personal injury damages alleging corporate negligence. Insurance carriers that have paid claims to homeowners and businesses for property damage have filed dozens of subrogation complaints. Even local governments, such as Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa, have piled on with their own legal claims.

So even though the company was just absolved by state fire investigators in last year’s deadly Tubbs Fire, it still faces potentially tens of billions of dollars in liabilities. For one thing, its equipment remains a prime suspect in the Camp Fire that killed 86 people in Butte County late last year. A PG&E employee spotted flames near a shorted-out utility tower, at the same place Cal Fire identified as the start of the state’s most-destructive wildfire.

But bankruptcy will by no means solve PG&E’s long-term problems, which will require legislative and regulatory solutions. Because what will be just as important in the months and years ahead is consensus on a fundamental question: When can the utility pass disaster costs on to consumers as wildfires become more frequent and destructive?

And unfortunately for PG&E, that’s about public trust.

“There’s a lot of public distrust of investor-owned utilities right now,” said Tara Kaushik, a utility lawyer also with Holland and Knight. “There’s a sense that the utility has to be held accountable and to operate safely. But at the same time, we have these recurring wildfires that are making it unsustainable for them to continue operating.”

Even before the utility announced its intent to reorganize in bankruptcy court, the financial market expressed concerns about PG&E’s ability to recover costs associated with these recent disasters. It was part of the reason credit agencies recently downgraded PG&E to junk status, which only made it more expensive and difficult to access capital.

“The rating downgrade reflects the material exposure to new potential liabilities associated with the Camp Fire and the uncertainties associated with how the fire-related liabilities will be recovered,” said Jeff Cassella, vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

As climate change impacts corporations’ bottom line, the same concerns have extended to other California utilities, triggering downgrades for both Southern California Edison, which services the Coachella Valley, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Cassella noted that state lawmakers passed $1 billion legislation that did nothing to address the 2018 wildfires. SB 901’s most controversial provision, to make it easier for utility companies to absorb the cost of fire damages by borrowing money and charging customers to pay it back over many years, covered the 2017 fires and those that start in 2019, but not any when the Camp Fire hit.

PG&E also tried—but failed—to get the Legislature to loosen fire-liability laws. Under a legal doctrine called “inverse condemnation,” utilities are liable for any wildfire damage traced to their equipment even if they were not negligent in maintaining it. Unless the state Supreme Court decided to issue a different interpretation or voters approved a constitutional amendment, releasing utilities of this financial responsibility would be pretty much out of the question.

Enter the California Public Utilities Commission.

The five-member commission regulates investor-owned utilities in the state and could decide whether PG&E acted prudently and should be allowed to pass on wildfire costs—even the damages a utility pays out in lawsuits—to consumers.

But a precedent has been set that has made PG&E think twice about its ability to recover wildfire costs through rate increases. In 2017, the commission blocked San Diego Gas and Electric from passing on $379 million in liability costs stemming from a 2007 wildfire. In a unanimous vote, the commission found the utility’s management of its facilities unreasonable.

It’s unclear what the CPUC would do if PG&E asked to pass on costs from the latest wildfires.

“We don’t know yet,” Kaushik said. “They haven’t asked.”

Even without liabilities, the cost to maintain public safety is creeping up. PG&E is asking for a $1.1 billion rate increase for wildfire prevention, risk reduction and safety enhancements, which, if approved by state regulators, would increase the average residential customer bill by 6.4 percent, or $10.57 per month.

Wildfire victims and their lawyers are quick to question PG&E’s motives, calling Chapter 11 a tactic to discourage and discount lawsuits rather than taking responsibility for the spate of recent tragedies. Camp Fire victims recently rallied at the state Capitol with legal activist Erin Brockovich, who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 box-office hit.

“This is another blow after the body blow of losing their homes and their lives,” said Noreen Evans, a former state legislator who is now representing 4,000 victims of 2017 and 2018 wildfires, at the rally. “It’s insult added to injury at a really hard time in their lives.”

Evans noted that under bankruptcy, wildfire victims with claims in trial court would be treated as unsecured creditors.

“Their claims would be delayed and probably discounted,” she said then—a fear that could now come true.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

The sun was beginning to set as Jim Wood stepped out of the examination room at the Sacramento morgue and walked into the lobby, white surgical booties covering his shoes.

He’d keep working there late into the night, but was taking a short break from the solemn task of identifying bits of human remains gathered from the rubble of the horrific Camp Fire.

Wood is a forensic odontologist—a dentist specially trained to identify dead bodies by examining teeth. He’s also a Democratic state assemblyman from Sonoma County. Those dual responsibilities have put him on the frontline in tackling two enormous, heart-wrenching puzzles: identifying the people who perished this month in California’s deadliest wildfire, and figuring out what state policies could prevent such catastrophes in the future.

“I thought that last year was really, really awful,” Wood said of the wine-country fires that killed 44 people, including some whom he identified through dental records. “I don’t think anybody expected that this year would be way worse.”

This summer Wood served on the special legislative committee that crafted a $1 billion plan to prevent wildfires—an amount he argued wasn’t sufficient for the massive task at hand.

For years before he was elected to the Legislature in 2014, Wood was a family dentist. Along the way, he sought extra training in forensic odontology and eventually became one of just 100 people in the United States who are certified at the highest level in the trade. He traveled the country to help identify victims of America’s worst disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Sept. 11 attack on New York.

More recently, Wood has put his skills to use a lot closer to home. Last year, he helped identify victims of the massive fire in Santa Rosa, just down the road from his house in Healdsburg. Last week, he was surveying the damage in Paradise, where the Camp Fire killed at least 83 people and destroyed 13,800 homes. Now, with the Legislature out of session, Wood is stationed at the coroner’s office in Sacramento, part of a team of forensic specialists who are examining the remains arriving from Paradise in body bags.

Teeth. Roots of teeth. Metal crowns and porcelain fillings.

“Most of what I’m seeing today are the roots of teeth. In these really hot fires, the enamel, or the white part of the tooth, often pops off the tooth,” Wood explained as he spoke in the lobby of the morgue.

“While those roots and parts of the teeth will survive, the jaw bone that supports the teeth is often burned away. So what we get are a bunch of teeth, but no way to associate them. So we use our knowledge of anatomy and the shapes of teeth, and I reconstruct. I look for a way to figure out how they would have looked in the mouth."

Wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, Wood arranges the dental remains on a big examination table. After he reconstructs a mouth, the next phase of detective work begins: Gathering dental X-rays and other records of people on the missing-persons list, and matching those images to the remains in the morgue.

It’s been difficult, Wood said, because many dental offices in Paradise burned up in the fire, and with them burned the records that could help identify victims. But he’s scouring other sources for X-rays that were saved electronically. Some 563 people remained on the missing-persons list as of Nov. 21, a number that has been fluctuating dramatically.

Mark Essick, sheriff-elect of Sonoma County, said Wood was a key player in helping law enforcement identify victims after the fires there last year. The sheriff’s department calls him in to help solve other cases that involve dental remains.

“He’s kind of a wizard,” Essick said. “He’s magic at what he does in helping us identify people.”

In between the infernos of last year and this year, Wood served on the special legislative committee focused on wildfire prevention. With his calm demeanor and measured tone of voice, he sat through long hearings on forest management, utility liability and emergency alert systems. He pushed for spending more money on thinning forests, something he said would benefit his rugged district that stretches from Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.

During the hearings, Wood didn’t publicly discuss his work identifying constituents who died in the brutal flames. But at one point in a late July hearing, he lost his patience.

“People are dying,” Wood said to Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, who had just described a lengthy bureaucratic process for approving utilities’ fire-mitigation plans. “I don’t want to be here five years from now, when millions more acres may have been burned in California, and many, many more lives have been lost, wondering what the heck were we doing. So I apologize for my passion. But … this is my district. This is where 44 of my constituents died, and I don’t want to see any more die.”

Authorities said 16 of last year’s fires involved Pacific Gas and Electric equipment, creating the possibility that the company will face billions of dollars in liability. PG&E and other utilities were intensely lobbying the wildfire committee this summer, seeking a change to liability laws and a plan to help them avoid bankruptcy by spreading their costs out over time. In so doing, they showered politicians with campaign contributions, San Francisco Giants tickets and steakhouse dinners.

Wood was the only fire committee member to return PG&E’s campaign donation, forgoing its $1,000.

“I know how some of my constituents feel about PG&E,” Wood said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable taking the contribution.”

The cause of the Camp Fire has not yet been identified, but PG&E reported problems with its electrical lines outside of Paradise just before the fire broke out.

Wood is urging that wildfire prevention continue to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes. He wants the state to do something big—and quick—though he acknowledges that he doesn’t yet know what that should be.

It’s likely to be a painstaking process, but as Wood heads back into the morgue’s exam room, he seems to have become accustomed to painstaking work.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Anna Dise slammed her hand into her car’s steering wheel, crying out for her father, Gordon, as he ran into their blazing home in Butte Creek Canyon.

She tried desperately to get the car to start, but it was no use. Worse yet, she was running out of time, and her dad wasn’t coming back out. One of the last things Dise saw before grabbing her two dogs and running for her life from the spreading Camp Fire was her childhood home’s kitchen disintegrating.

Dise called 911, but emergency personnel couldn’t get to her. To survive, she needed to find a way to outwit the blaze. She found a ditch and hunkered down, using what little water it held to douse herself and her beloved pets, Luna and Sirius, as embers rained down upon them.

Hours went by, and Dise, terrified the flames would consume her, stayed on alert as she spent the night outside.

“I had to stay awake and watch which way the fires were moving, all the hot spots,” she said on Nov. 9 at Chico’s Neighborhood Church, one of several locations temporarily housing evacuees and others rescued from the deadly Northern California blaze that ignited the previous morning.

In the early morning light, under a blanket of smoke, Dise hiked back to her house. There, she found its charred, skeletal remains and the car “all melted down.” There was no sign of her father.

“I don’t even think I saw my dad’s bones, but I know he was in there,” she said.

Inexplicably, a bag of family photos she’d abandoned was “untouched, no burns or anything.” That, along with her canine companions, provided some comfort.

“We lost everything except for each other,” she said.

Dise’s cellphone battery had died, so she walked to a neighbor’s house and waited for help to arrive. She heard chainsaws in the distance—the sound of Cal Fire personnel working their way through fallen trees—and was rescued around 7 a.m.

Dise’s harrowing story would be unfathomable were it not for the fact that so many other Butte County residents can relate to it. Indeed, tens of thousands of residents fled for their lives, as the Camp Fire bore down on the Paradise and Magalia ridge communities of Butte County, as well as several surrounding hamlets, including Concow and Butte Creek Canyon.

The blaze started the morning of Nov. 8 east of Paradise in the Plumas National Forest. The cause is still under investigation, but one of the primary questions is whether an issue with a nearby high-voltage power line is related. Already facing billions in lawsuits for allegedly sparking other California wildfires—including the Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties in October of last year—PG&E reported to the California Public Utilities Commission that an outage occurred just before the first calls of the Camp Fire came in to authorities.

It spread quickly in the parched foothills, pushed by low humidity and high winds that blew embers for miles, triggering fires throughout the region. As of this morning (Nov. 20), the firestorm had destroyed more than 16,800 structures. It has consumed more than 151,000 acres and was 70 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.


Amid the gray, post-apocalyptic landscape, particularly in the residential portions of Paradise, streets leading to the few main arteries exiting to the valley below were strewn with vehicles. They’d been abandoned by occupants who’d been stopped in gridlock traffic and had no choice but to get out and try to outrun the fast-moving flames.

Some of the automobiles were so scorched that their make and model were unrecognizable. Only shells remained, and in some cases, trails of melted aluminum oozed on the asphalt below. Several were crushed by collapsed power polls or trees. Still others appeared eerily unscathed.

James Betts witnessed the confusion and panic first-hand. Huddled with other evacuees at Neighborhood Church the day after escaping the flames, he described how quickly the fire moved through his Paradise neighborhood and how fortunate he was to make it out.

He, along with a friend and several family members, including his grandmother and nephew, were alerted to the fire by loud explosions. Outside, they saw flames down the street and drivers backed up on the roadway, honking and yelling.

Nobody in Betts’ group had a car.

“I was screaming at people, begging them, ‘Please stop,’” he said. “It was like Armageddon outside. It was nuts.”

A stranger driving a pickup truck finally pulled up and all of them, plus their animals, piled into the bed. “We’re so lucky, we really are,” Betts said. “I gave him the biggest hug in the world. I don’t even know his name.”

Betts was echoed by fellow Paradise evacuee Oscar Albretsen, an epileptic who also was without transportation. “I honestly thought I was going to burn to death,” he said.

Rescue came in the form of his neighbors, who made room in their vehicle for Albretsen and his cat, Nibbler.

The scene he described on the downhill ride to Chico is surreal—a wall of fire on either side of the roadway, which was dotted with charred deer carcasses, abandoned cars with pets inside, and homes burning or burned to the ground with only their chimneys intact.

Albretsen’s last glimpse of the landscape in no way resembled his hometown.

“It’s beautiful, and a town where people are so good to each other,” Albretsen said. “Now it’s starting to dawn on me: Everybody lost everything.”

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Chico News & Review. Please consider donating to the GoFundMe campaign for employees of the News & Review who have been affected by the fire at www.gofundme.com/help-our-news-amp-review-family.

Published in Environment

As California lawmakers struggled to address an apparent new normal of epic wildfires, there was an inescapable subtext: Climate change is going to be staggeringly expensive, and virtually every Californian is going to have to pay for it.

In the final week of August—just before the Legislature agreed to spend $200 million on tree clearance and let utilities pass on to customers the multi-billion-dollar costs of just one year’s fire damage—the state released a sobering report detailing the broader costs Californians face as the planet grows warmer.

As horrendous as the wildfire situation is, the report made clear that it’s just one line item on a colossal ledger: It could soon cost us $200 million a year in increased energy bills to keep homes air conditioned; $3 billion from the effects of a long drought; and $18 billion to replace buildings inundated by rising seas, just to cite a few projections—not to mention the loss of life from killer heat waves, which could add more than 11,000 heat-related deaths per year by 2050 in California, and carry an estimated $50 billion annual price tag.

“Without adaptation, the economic impacts of climate change will be very costly,” warned the Climate Change Assessment report from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, noting that the buildup of manmade greenhouse gases has already warmed California by up to 2 degrees since 1900. That bump, the assessment added, could rise to nearly 9 degrees by the century’s end.

And Californians are being hit with a double-whammy because fighting and preparing for climate change also costs money, and the Golden State has embraced an ambitious agenda to combat global warming. For example, Californians pay more for gas in part because of the state’s low-carbon fuel requirement and the cap-and-trade system that makes polluters pay for their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are right now disproportionately bearing the brunt of both some of the impacts (of climate change) and trying to mitigate it ourselves,” said Solomon Hsiang, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, who has researched the cost of climate change.

As that has sunk in, the reaction has been a mix of pragmatism, panic and political action.

As wildfires laid siege to the state and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of Californians earlier this summer, Brown warned that “over a decade, there will be more fire, more destructive fire, more billions that will have to be spent on it, more adaptation and more prevention.”

At the time, California had blown through a quarter of the state’s $443 million emergency wildfire fund; in the devastating 4 1/2 weeks since, the fund has been nearly wiped out.

“All that is the new normal we will have to face,” the governor said.

That realization swept through the Capitol again this week, as lawmakers approved a bill to require that all electricity in California come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by the end of 2045.

Senate Bill 100 was hailed as bold move away from climate-damaging fossil fuels—but legislative critics pointed out that California already has both the nation’s highest poverty rate and the highest per-kilowatt cost for electricity.

“I guarantee you: We pass this, and rates are going to go up,” Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle said during a passionate floor debate. “Californians cannot afford it.”

Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat carrying the bill for 100 percent renewable electricity, dismissed cost concerns as nothing more than the rhetoric of naysayers “who try to undermine our clean-energy climate goals.” The cost of solar power has already dropped significantly and will likely continue to come down further, he said, in the years leading up to the 100 percent renewable requirement. And, his supporters argued, there is also a cost to not fighting climate change—even more fires and floods than would otherwise occur.

Noel Perry, a founder of Next 10, a group that researches environmental and economic policy, says the benefits of California’s climate policies outweigh the costs, because California can demonstrate to the rest of the world what’s possible to fight global warming while expanding the economy with clean technology investments. California’s economy, the world’s fifth-largest, has grown by 16 percent in the last decade while emissions fell by 11 percent, according to a new report from his group.

“In certain instances, it will involve increased costs for some consumers and businesses. But because of how huge the climate change challenge is, we need to address it,” Perry said.

In some cases, the increased costs for fuel and electricity are more directly offset by efficiency standards for cars and appliances meant to help Californians consume less energy. For example, a recent mandate requiring solar panels on new homes in 2020 will likely add $10,000 to the price of a house, but could save homeowners more than $16,000 in energy bills.

In any event, climate costs are no longer abstract. Lawmakers have spent much of this year deep in the political nitty-gritty of who should pay how much for which climate-fueled disaster. The total cost of last year’s catastrophic wildfires still isn’t fully tallied, for example, but some estimates put it over $10 billion, and lawmakers have spent much of the year debating how much of that should be paid by taxptubbsayers, utility companies or their industrial and residential ratepayers.

Under California’s liability law, utilities are liable for damages from any fires sparked by their power lines, even if they weren’t negligent. Cal Fire alleges that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. equipment was involved in 16 of last year’s fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state codes that require keeping trees and shrubs away from power lines. The company says it met the state’s standards. Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the Tubbs Fire, the deadliest of last year’s blazes.

The utilities lobbied unsuccessfully this year to change the liability law. But they scored a partial win late Friday night as the Legislature OK'd a plan the wildfire committee advanced allowing utilities to issue bonds to cover damages from the 2017 fires and pass the cost onto their customers—even if the company is found negligent.

Senate Bill 901 would require a review of the companies’ finances before any surcharge is placed on ratepayers, and lawmakers supporting the plan said it would result in modest new charges—roughly $26 per year for residential ratepayers if the companies paid off $5 billion over 20 years. The alternative, they said, was the possibility that the company could go bankrupt, costing customers even more.

Consumer advocates blasted it as a “bailout” for PG&E; lobbyists for industries that use a lot of power said the plan would unfairly burden customers.

Meanwhile, the bill also calls for creation of a new Commission on Catastrophic Wildfire Cost and Recovery that would decide whether utilities can charge customers for fires in 2018 and beyond, and recommend potential changes to state law “that would ensure equitable distribution of costs among affected parties.”

Translation: Expect a lot more debate in the coming years over who will pay for damages from California disasters exacerbated by climate change.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Between last year’s deadly wildfires and this summer’s fatal blazes, utilities and insurers with a huge stake in fires’ aftermath have poured more than $3.2 million into California campaign donations, and another $5.2 million into lobbying at the state Capitol—a big spike.

Also fiercely lobbying on wildfire bills: plaintiffs attorneys, local governments and electrical worker unions.

Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, lawmakers on a special wildfire committee are considering proposals to beef up safety of the electrical system and change liability laws. CALmatters reviewed new lobbying and campaign finance reports covering the first six months of the year. The takeaways:

Lobbying is up—by a lot: The state’s three big electric utilities together more than doubled their spending on lobbying during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. The increase was driven largely by Pacific Gas and Electric, which spent $2.2 million on lobbying this year—triple what it spent in the first half of 2017.

Between April and June this year, PG&E reported spending $1.1 million specifically lobbying on wildfire legislation.

“This is really the biggest issue facing our company today,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo, adding that PG&E pays for lobbying expenses with shareholder funds, not money from customers.

At issue: Who should be responsible for and pay for fire damages? Under existing law, utilities are liable if fires are traced to their equipment—even if there’s no negligence. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed changing the law to relieve utilities of some liability—protection they desperately want.

Edison, which provides power to much of Southern California, including much of the Coachella Valley, spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first half of this year—double what it spent last year.

Insurance companies are the utilities’ main adversary in this: If utilities become less liable, insurers will have to bear more of the costs from disasters. Insurance trade associations increased their spending on lobbying in the state Capitol by 51 percent this year over last.

There’s a whole lotta wining and dining going on: Most of the money utilities and insurance companies spent on lobbying went to lobbyists, lawyers and publicity campaigns. But the total also includes a lot of cocktails and steaks the companies bought for government officials they are trying to influence—nearly $69,000 worth of goodies for the first half of this year.

PG&E treated GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and six of his staff members to a San Francisco Giants game in May. In July, Cannella was appointed to the committee crafting wildfire legislation. He declined to comment for this story.

Overall, PG&E spent more than $3,000 entertaining government officials, including a breakfast in February for Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who is co-chair of the wildfire committee, and a lunch in June for Todd Derum, chief of the Sonoma division of Cal Fire, the agency investigating last year’s fires. Cal Fire has said PG&E’s equipment was involved in 16 fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state safety codes. Cal Fire has not yet completed its investigation of the deadliest blaze, known as the Tubbs Fire.

Edison spent more than $45,000 entertaining officials. That included a $12,000 reception in January attended by more than 100 legislators and staff members, and a dinner in March at a Los Angeles steakhouse for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

The Personal Insurance Federation of California spent $14,300 entertaining lawmakers and their staff, including an $8,500 reception in March and a $4,000 soiree at a Sacramento nightclub in April. In addition, the trade association treated officials to microbrews, sushi dinners and other goodies, such as a $53 cake for an assemblywoman’s chief of staff.

Rex Frazier, the Personal Insurance Federation lobbyist, said government decisions have a huge impact on the insurance business because it is so highly regulated. “With that,” he said, “comes relationship-building with legislators.”

The victims advocacy group is funded almost entirely by lawyers: Fire victims are lobbying to preserve liability laws and pass new rules that could help prevent future wildfires. Their advocacy group Up From the Ashes is represented by a lobbyist who lost his Santa Rosa home in the fires. The group blames PG&E and Edison for not doing enough to prevent last year’s disasters, some of which were sparked by power lines too close to branches and brush.

Up From the Ashes spent about $564,000 lobbying between April and June, with about $55,000 going to a lobbying firm and the rest to a publicity campaign. Where did the money come from? Essentially, law firms involved in lawsuits against utilities.

 “We appreciate their funding so we can have a voice,” said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for Up From the Ashes, which represents about 600 homeowners, businesses and local governments that lost property in last year’s fires.

It’s a bipartisan love affair: The industries involved in the fight over wildfire legislation aren’t playing favorites: They’ve showered dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators with large campaign contributions and pour huge sums into committees to elect politicians from both parties.

Edison gave $1.1 million to California political campaigns this year, including $250,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party. It also gave $25,000 each to a GOP group called California Trailblazers and the Democratic campaign fighting a senator’s recall. In advance of the June primary, Edison gave $29,200 each to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic rivals in the gubernatorial race.

PG&E has given more than $900,000 in political donations this year, including $175,000 to the California Democratic Party and $110,000 to the California Republican Party. It’s also given $25,000 to a committee that supports moderate Republicans and $40,000 to one that supports moderate Democrats.

In addition, PG&E gave $150,000 to a campaign supporting Newsom for governor, and paid nearly $400,000 to a political consulting firm that ran Brown’s campaign for governor and is helping with Newsom’s.

The Farmers insurance company gave $96,500 to the state GOP and $10,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the Newsom campaign.

One lawmaker doesn’t want PG&E’s money: On June 4, PG&E sent $1,000 to the re-election campaign for Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood. On June 30, he returned the money.

Wood declined to comment on why he sent back the PG&E money, instead saying through a spokeswoman that he did not solicit the donation.

But here’s a clue: He represents parts of Santa Rosa devastated by last year’s fires. Now he sits on the wildfire committee, where he’s questioning whether the Legislature should change liability laws before Cal Fire completes its investigations.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The spring of 2011 was wetter than usual in the Pacific Northwest. A huge snow year was followed by rain, and during the peak, runoff water was ripping through the hydroelectric turbines on Bonneville Power Administration’s dams.

Spring is also the windy season, and hundreds of new turbines in the region were pumping juice into the electrical grid. Even when substantial electricity exports to California were taken into account, the combined wind and hydropower plants were generating more carbon-free electricity than the region’s residents and businesses could consume.

But too much of a good thing is, well, too much. In order to keep the grid from being overloaded, the BPA forced the wind farms to shut down, bashing their bottom line. Controversy and lawsuits ensued: Both wind-farmers and salmon advocates would have preferred it if the BPA had spilled the water over the dams, rather than run it through the turbines.

Regardless of who’s right in this case, the whole brouhaha could have been avoided, and the dams and turbines could have continued to pump out power, had one piece of technology been introduced: a giant battery. Charge it up during times of oversupply, and draw from it during times of need.

If only it were that easy. Thanks to the high cost and immature technology, large-scale energy storage remains rare in the North American Grid.

In October, however, California’s utility regulators shook the battery world up: They required the state’s biggest utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—collectively to install 1,325 megawatts of energy storage by the end of 2024 (“where megawatt represents the peak power capacity of the storage resource in terms of the maximum discharge rate,” according to the California Public Utility Commission draft decision documents).

While that’s only about the same capacity as one large coal power plant, it will be a huge leap. Today’s biggest storage projects are only around 140 megawatts, and the largest battery project in California is a mere four megawatts.

Electricity is a crazy product. Just about any other good can be manufactured, stored and then distributed to the consumer according to demand. But electricity is cranked out of turbines or solar panels and sent to consumers at the speed of light. At any given moment, production must be equal to demand, lest the whole grid go haywire, meaning that outages ensue—thus the Northwest wind shutdown of 2011. Solar panels only generate significant amounts of power for a limited time each day, and their peak output tends to occur a few hours earlier than peak demand. A big thunderhead blocking the sun’s rays from a solar array can cut the array’s output by as much as 80 percent in seconds. Wind, meanwhile, tends to blow mostly at night, when demand is low, and second-to-second fluctuations can cause a wind farm’s output to vary dramatically.

That means that for every added megawatt of wind or solar in a particular section of the grid, the operators of that grid have to have on hand a controllable, more-predictable power source—usually either hydroelectric or fossil fuel—to smooth the bobbles and back things up in case of dramatic drops in generation. But large-scale storage could also play the backup and smoothing role, thereby displacing fossil fuels in the grid. Indeed, without it, the hope of a fossil fuel-free grid is no more than a pipe dream.

At a recent gathering of the Rocky Mountain Association of Energy Engineers in Denver, the importance of storage was clear. Several people mentioned the significance of California’s new requirement. And the first ever Randy Udall scholarship, announced at the conference, went to University of Colorado at Boulder doctoral student Michelle Lim for her work on energy storage. Robert Welch, a prominent energy consultant, pointed out that energy storage isn’t a totally new idea: When a utility stockpiles coal, it’s storing energy.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy with actual electricity. You can’t just pile it up in a warehouse. Having said that, there is no shortage of storage technologies—though many are untested or costly—from which the California utilities can choose to fulfill the mandate. Just a few examples:

Batteries/chemical storage: Near San Jose, Calif., the brand new Yerba Buena sodium sulfur battery system has a capacity of 4 megawatts, and will be able to keep a more constant supply of power flowing into Silicon Valley. But batteries are expensive, and take a while to charge, plus the charge doesn’t last a long time. They are the Achilles’ heel of electric vehicles, too.

Crowdsourcing storage: One electric car battery isn’t going to do much aside from power the car for 100 miles, but 100,000 of them, all hooked into the grid at the same time, could provide large-scale backup. It’s a serious proposal, and it makes sense. The only problem is timing: How do you ensure that an adequate number of folks will have their cars plugged in when you need to draw from their batteries for backup?

Pumped hydro storage: A reservoir with hydropower is essentially a giant battery, though we can’t control the charging process. Put a reservoir on a hill; pump water up to it during times of high power production; and release the water to turn a turbine during high demand—and you’re getting somewhere. It’s not a bad idea, and there are several scattered across the U.S., but they require specific topographic conditions.

Thermal storage: In Gila Bend, Ariz., the Solana solar project reflects sunlight onto tubes, creating heat and steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity. In the process, the sun also heats up salt, which retains the heat, which is later released to generate steam and power when the sun’s not shining.

Compressed air: Not unlike pumped hydro-storage, this system uses excess power to pump air into underground chambers, where it is pressurized. It can later be released to turn turbines and generate electricity.

And there are many more, including flywheels; superconducting magnetic energy; and filling and emptying giant, hollow spheres that hang from offshore wind facilities in order to turn a turbine.

None of these technologies are perfect, and some remain infeasible at a large scale. But a decade ago, the same could be said for large-scale wind and solar. As states started requiring utilities to add set percentages of renewable energy to their portfolios, innovation accelerated, and costs came down.

California’s new requirement has the power to do the same with energy storage. If other states follow, as is often the case, it will provide the push needed to bring those big batteries online—and finally loosen fossil fuels’ grip on our electrical grid.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment