CVIndependent

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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

The easy calls have been made in dealing with California’s wildfire crisis. We’re clearing brush, spending on firefighters and hastening insurance claims. We’ve tied the pay of utility executives to their companies’ safety records. To save lives—and liability costs—during red-flag conditions, we’ve cut power to great swaths of the state.

We’ve spent billions: Rare is the press release from Gov. Gavin Newsom that does not include a litany of wildfire actions. But it hasn’t been enough, and as Californians now face the realities of climate change, the only choices left are hard vs. hard: Black out even more people. Ban wildland homebuilding. Bury power lines. Build microgrids. Break up the state’s largest utility—the bankrupt one supplying half of the state—and give its aging, spark-spewing equipment to taxpayers or customers or hedge funds or Warren Buffett. Burn nature before it burns you.

So what are our options at this point, assuming we get through this season? Here are a few—with pros, cons and political odds.

Why don’t we ban homebuilding in areas of high risk?

The idea: One in three homes in California is in an area at risk for wildfire. Those residences—poised on the edge of, and sometimes in the midst of rugged, flammable wildlands—are increasingly in peril. And too often, only the rich can afford the kind of insurance that’s necessary to rebuild.

The pros: This is a zoning issue. If people can be prohibited from building in a flood plain, or warned about living on a fault line, why not write ordinances that either say no to building in dangerous places, or require homeowners and businesses to sign a waiver absolving authorities from the need to provide fire protection to them?

The cons: Property rights are big in American jurisprudence. People want to build where they choose and get irritated when the state steps on local control. Sometimes financial necessity forces people to homes in rural places. And build-at-your-own-risk isn’t the mantra of a society that believes public safety is part of a government’s role.

The odds: Imagine a local elected official telling a property developer—who may or may not donate to political campaigns—that we will no longer make room on forested hills for new luxury subdivisions, with their alluring property tax potential. Not gonna happen.

In any case, Gov. Gavin Newsom has rejected such a building ban, telling the Associated Press in April, “There’s something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and pioneering spirit.” Odds are zip.


Why don’t we bury all the powerlines?

The idea: Some of the most catastrophic wildfires in recent years have been sparked by electrical equipment. PG&E, in particular, has been bankrupted by liability for apocalyptic fires caused by aging wires and towers. Its solution? Apocalyptic blackouts. So why not put the fire hazard underground?

The pros: It would be safer. And it’s not unheard of. Since 2009, Australia has required undergrounding of new lines.

The cons: It’s incredibly slow. PG&E alone has some 81,000 miles of overhead lines. Undergrounding makes damaged lines hard to access, and leaves them vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. They’re just one source of risk among many. And it’s reallllly expensive. PG&E puts the price at about $2.3 million a mile on average compared with $800,000 per mile for building new overhead lines.

The odds: On a scale of 1-10? Maybe a 3, though the cost-benefit improves with every utility-sparked wildfire. But utility poles have a constituency, too, as California rolls out the 5-G digital infrastructure needed for high-speed internet and self-driving cars.


Why don’t we break up PG&E?

The idea: An inordinate number of catastrophic wildfires have been traced to Pacific Gas and Electric, which powers most of Northern California, from big cities to remote wildlands. Either transition California’s largest investor-owned utility into one public utility, or break PG&E into a bunch of municipal utilities.

The pros: PG&E is a bankrupt corporation that has been found guilty of six federal felonies, not to mention a history of water contamination, pipeline explosions and electrical fires that are killing people. It knew for years that aging equipment was at risk of sparking wildfires. And CEO stands to make millions if the company’s stock rebounds after bankruptcy. So yes, PG&E’s track record makes it easy to rally public support for a government takeover.

The cons: Breaking up PG&E may be more costly for consumers and leaves questions about how to serve rural communities, such as the Sierra foothills, where it is more expensive to maintain the electric grid. Plus, those wooded areas are at greater risk for wildfires, no matter whose wire the spark comes from.

The odds: Maybe 3 in 10? San Francisco and other cities are exploring the possibility of escaping PG&E. But local annexation of PG&E territory is litigious and costly, if history is a guide.


Why don’t we make utilities repay us for blackouts?

The idea: Sensing no political downside, Newsom is demanding PG&E offer rebates—$100 to residential customers and $250 to small businesses—to compensate people for the recent public safety power shutdowns.

The pros: Other businesses offer your money back if customers don’t get service. Californians use less electricity than customers in other states, on average, but their rates are relatively high. And there’s no harm for politicians in demanding refunds from, say, a company like PG&E, which is both unpopular and bankrupt.

The cons: PG&E blackouts for October alone have hit more some 2 million households, and, as noted, that utility is bankrupt. In any case, any rebate would be a mere gesture compared to what Californians are about to pay for electricity. So far, the average PG&E customer stands to pay an extra $30 a month even before all the details of bankruptcy are worked out.

The odds: Eight in 10 of some policy going forward. Newsom has already scored one clawback. Acknowledging blunders, PG&E recently announced a one-time credit to those impacted by its Oct. 9 blackout, which cut power to more than 700,000 customers.


Why don’t we move to microgrids?

The idea: If the big utilities are causing the fires, and creating the untenable public safety blackouts that are impacting millions of Californians, why not pull the plug on for-profit power companies?

The pros: A microgrid is a locally controlled power system that can be connected to or “disconnected” from the electrical grid. The systems produce, store and distribute power on a small scale and offer precisely what’s needed in times of chaos: resiliency. A tiny grid can provide power to operate critical infrastructure during emergencies, such as hospitals and fire stations.

The cons: As the technology stands right now, microgrids, as the name implies, are not applicable for large scale deployment, although the desert community of Borrego Springs hums along using one. There are still some technological barriers to be overcome.

The odds: Moving en masse to a system of microgrids is a dream for some, but still a distant one. The state is studying the issue. And legislators are not ones to let a crisis go to waste. Expect even more attention to this in Sacramento. Odds are 6 out of 10.


Why don’t we stage more controlled burns?

The idea: Fighting fire with fire has been going on in California since before European settlement. If carefully planned and monitored, these small purpose-set fires can quickly remove dangerous fuels and dead trees.

The pros:Forest thinning is a critical component of California’s approach to fire mitigation. It’s an inexpensive alternative to tree-cutting: Sending crews in to physically remove trees can cost as much as $1,400 an acre. Controlled burns are a relative bargain, coming in at about $150 an acre. Small, low-intensity burns are ultimately healthy for forests. And it’s more efficient than that raking-the-forest-like-Finland idea …

The cons: Even closely monitored burns discharge polluting and unhealthful smoke. It’s not uncommon for a prescribed burn that took two years to plan to be scrubbed because residents in a nearby town complained. Also, the flames can be dangerous, and it’s a bit jarring to see firefighters set fires.

The odds: Very good, an 8. The state is accelerating thinning projects. Everyone likes the idea of controlled burns, in theory. But we may all just have to get used to them as a norm.


Why don’t we throw more people and equipment at fires?

The idea: We are Americans. More is better. Why can’t we have everything?

The pros: Fire folks like to talk about “tools in the toolbox.” Who doesn’t want the biggest toolbox with the latest tools to tackle a dangerous and unpredictable job? Why use puny World War II-era prop planes when you can call up a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet patrolling the sky like a pterodactyl, dousing flames with nearly 19,000 gallons of retardant? Even when machines are grounded by wind, it’s reassuring to have them near.

The cons: Some wildfires are predictable, inviting crews to swarm over them, all-but stamping them out with their boots. Those polite fires don’t tend to be California fires. The infernos menacing Northern and Southern California are driven by powerful winds, typical for this time of year. Putting resources in front of those flames is dangerous and not always effective: Aircraft and machines and people in uniform may not stop a wind-driven fire until winds die down or rain falls. And paying for fleets of tankers, helicopters, bulldozers and crews to sit around waiting for the weather to change is breathtakingly expensive.

The odds: Pretty good. Maybe 7 out of 10. As noted, fire folks like a well-stocked toolbox and usually, Cal Fire gets what Cal Fire wants.


Why don’t we make all utilities public?

The idea: California is home to a mix of public and investor-owned utilities, but the investor-owned ones (think PG&E) have a fiduciary duty to shareholders that complicates spending on public safety. So let the government run the grid.

The pros: The public, not shareholders or investors, would set rates through a governing body or a board, and there would be clear accountability to improve safety and maintain equipment. Public utilities operate their own generation facilities or purchase power through contracts. And they would have access to public financing. No more worrying about shareholder returns.

The cons: Turning private corporations into government-run providers would be difficult, pricey—and a gamble. The public would have to pony up billions just to acquire all private providers, including the biggest three: Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and the main Coachella Valley provider, Southern California Edison. Then the public is left holding the bag if there are problems, such as deadly wildfires. And publicly owned utilities aren’t necessarily without controversy. Consider the history of corruption at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers—and whose power lines appear to have helped spark the Getty Fire.

The odds: Like, 1 in 10. Gov. Gavin Newsom could talk up a state takeover of PG&E, if the political will were there for it, but he’s talked up Warren Buffett and other potential white knights instead.


Why don’t we force utilities to better target blackouts?

The idea: Public safety power shut-offs, or de-energization, have been used in California since 2013, mainly by San Diego Gas and Electric during high fire danger to reduce the risk of electrical fires.

The pros: SDG&E hardened its system after a 2007 wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and killed two people. It now operates a “networked” grid of major transmission lines, smaller distribution lines and circuits that allows distribution from different paths. The company also has invested in “reclosers,” which are pole-mounted circuit breakers that allow authorities to more surgically pinpoint trouble on a line and shut off power to smaller areas. The utility’s blackouts have affected as many as 23,000 households, and as few as one or two customers.

The cons: PG&E can’t be so precise. It serves 70,000 square miles of California and runs a “radial” system, meaning power lines stretch over long distances. PG&E serves 16 million customers compared to 3.6 million for SDG&E over 4,100 square miles.

The odds: Eight in 10, but it’ll be a work in progress. According to PG&E’s wildfire-mitigation plan, it pledged to work on finding ways to reduce the impact of blackouts ahead of this year’s wildfire season. So far, the utility has cut power to millions of people in dozens of counties several times in October.


Why don’t we beef up California’s alert system?

The idea: Alerting the public can be the difference between life and death. But too often, emergency notifications come too late. During last year’s Camp Fire, a large number of residents didn’t receive an alert or warning. At the time, the most effective system came from neighbors knocking on doors and word of mouth. California has to do better. With 85 lives lost, that blaze is now the state’s deadliest.

The pros: For the first time, the state has issued basic guidelines for when and how to issue public alerts, suggestions for what information to include in a message, and where to distribute those warnings. The 83-page report released in March by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services recommends alerting communities through as many platforms as possible, from wireless emergency alerts, traditional landlines, TV and radio to door-to-door notification, loudspeakers and sirens. Cal Fire also has an alert app that lets users receive customized texts and push notifications about wildfires reported within a chosen ZIP code or 30 miles of a phone’s location. State officials now say “all of the above” is probably the best way to keep the public informed.

The cons: “All of the above” is still pretty tech-heavy, and recent fires and blackouts have shown that cell phones can be rendered useless in a worst-case scenario. Tech access isn’t equal in all parts of California. While most of the 58 counties have access to a new federal Wireless Emergency Alert system, 16 counties are not signed up. And despite those warning guidelines from CalOES, the state is still working on uniform terms so various state and local government agencies understand each other in an emergency.

The odds: Six in 10, at least in the short term. Progress is being made but emergency communications still need work.


Why don’t we bring back landlines?

The idea: Cell phones aren’t reliable during emergencies, and PG&E blackouts have already resulted in a loss of cell-phone service—so let’s go analog. California should bring back landlines.

The pros: Landlines are time-tested, typically underground and can be operated with minimal power.

The cons: They aren’t what they used to be. Modern landlines frequently operate on voice-over internet protocol, which sends calls over the internet, not a traditional phone line. If the power’s out, then a house phone might not work. Nor are companies required to offer backup power for VOIP lines. This is already becoming an issue as blackouts affect the state. Another problem? Folks with landlines often use cordless phones, which require electricity.

The odds: Two out of 10. In 2017, more than half of U.S. households relied on cell phones alone. As phone companies increasingly lean on the internet to provide service, landlines figure less and less into California’s emergency back-up plan.


Why don’t we deal with this crisis at its source?

The idea: These are not your father’s wildfires. California was built to burn, but that natural propensity has been amplified by climate change to a perilous degree. Costly though it may be, we should do whatever it takes to curb the greenhouse-gas pollution behind global warming—now, if it isn’t already too late.

Pros: “California’s burning while the (climate) deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all,” former Gov. Jerry Brown recently told a House Oversight Committee. “The blood is on your soul here and I hope you wake up. Because this is not politics, this is life, this is morality. … This is real.”

Cons: Bringing greenhouse-gas pollution down from the world’s current, existentially threatening levels, is a far bigger job than California alone can afford to bankroll. And Americans, even those who don’t deny the threat, aren’t in political agreement about the change, sacrifice and massive expense required by the solutions.

The odds: Climate change may not be the tip-top priority it was in the Brown administration, but the Democratic Party is highly unlikely to depart from the policies that made California a climate leader. So the odds are 9 in 10 that the status quo here will continue—though it’s another story in the Trump administration’s Washington. And let’s be real: The ability of one state to solve global climate change is limited. Even California doesn’t have that much climate control. Or hubris.

Elizabeth Castillo and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this explainer. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

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

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